A voice speaks to Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). It tells him he's better than this, that he's a star and deserves better. He confides to his ex-wife at one point that the voice tells the truth. And that it scares him sometimes.
"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" is unlike any other film that immediately leaps to mind. It is simultaneously about death and rebirth, about failure and success, and about those things we think we can't live without and those we know we can't live with. And it juggles all of its philosophical observations while being one of the most technically proficient motion pictures you'll ever see.
Perhaps because it depicts the behind-the-scenes drama of the production of a play, "Birdman" features very long scenes, only a couple of which stop cold. Most scenes blend together with new actors appearing in the frame and others taking a powder, the action moving seamlessly into the next room. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores Perros," "Babel") masterfully uses long takes to blend the action together. With a couple exceptions, the movie looks like one incredibly long camera shot. And much like last year's most auspicious work behind the camera Alfonso Cuarón for "Gravity," "Birdman" could land Mexico a Best Director Oscar.
The casting of Keaton is great. He's best known for playing Batman, of course, and here he portrays an actor who has apparently not sustained fame since last portraying a superhero in 1992. To rebuild his career, Riggan has adapted the Raymond Carver story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," into a stage play, curiously taking its period back another generation or so into the early 1960s. The production is in previews, with opening night just a few days away.
His producer (Zach Galifianakis) is understandably nervous, made more anxious when a supporting actor is hit on the head by a stage light. The accident opens the door to Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), one of Broadway's ultimate bad boys. He resents Riggan's Hollywood credentials, openly questioning his work as a stage actor and director in an interview ostensibly designed to promote the upcoming production. Complicating matters even more is that Shiner's girlfriend (Naomi Watts) is the female lead in the play, but he's far more interested in Sam (Emma Stone), who just so happens to be Riggan's daughter.
The quiet scenes between Stone and Norton, which could easily be about what a cad he is and how the troubled girl just out of rehab has no choice but to fall for him anyway, go much deeper. In a film with exemplary writing, these might be the most efficient and illustrative moments. Both actors are terrific throughout. However, it is Keaton's monstrous performance here that will magnetize you. Riggan is in many ways a broken man, but his nature is to fight with everything he's worth. The worse the production goes, the lower he drops his head to drive himself forward. And then the voice in his head gets louder.
"Birdman" will definitely be in the running for some golden accolades. The film, Iñárritu and Keaton all seem like surefire nominees, and Norton and Stone are strong possibilities. Emmanuel Lubezki seems like a lock for the cinematography trophy; there's just nothing in its league at the moment. And the story is so layered, so meticulously executed and so original, it's probably also in line for a screenplay nomination at the very least.
If all of this makes you think "Birdman" is one of the year's very best films, then you should trust that voice in your head more often.