Innovative techniques fly in ‘Birdman’

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Fox Searchlight/Courtesy

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The voice is low, gravelly, striking, disembodied, as if arriving from another planet. The opening scene finds this voice berating our protagonist, veteran actor Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), who is meditating — levitating? — in a messy dressing room, muttering a mantra under his breath in an attempt to block it out. At first, the voice is disorienting — is Thompson schizophrenic? And as the movie proceeds and the voice returns again and again, it becomes clear the voice is an alter ego, an acting role from Thompson’s past haunting him in the present.

One might say the entire plot of “Birdman,” the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu-directed black comedy, centers on the exploration of one really arrogant man’s ego and the egos of those unfortunate enough to orbit in his circle. On the surface, the film follows a very traditional structure. Thompson, somewhere around 20 years past the prime of his career but still with the cultural cache to be recognized by passers-by on the street, decides to write, direct and star in his own Broadway show, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.

The tension in the film is similarly conventional — the viewer is dropped into the action mere days before the play is set to debut, and every obstacle Riggan encounters dares to doom the play from ever occurring. The obviousness of this setup feels almost farcical, and the ensuing action matches that tone — during one of the previews of the show, Thompson gets locked out of the theater right before the last scene with his bathrobe stuck in the doorway, and so to get back on stage for the final scene, he runs through Times Square in just his tighty-whities, mortified as tourists snap photos on their iPhones.

In one way, then, “Birdman” is your cliched farce, complete with a tragic protagonist and a cast of goofy characters. What sets “Birdman” apart — and, presumably, why it’s garnering major Oscar buzz — is the way it subverts this genre.

Rather than using Riggan as a solid, impenetrable object to bounce jokes off of, Inarritu imbues his protagonist with real depth. Remnants of his life’s regret mull about the scenery. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), lounges around the set, reeling from a recent rehab visit, implicitly probing the viewer to consider the merits of Riggan’s parenting. There’s nothing implicit about Riggan’s ex-wife’s (Amy Ryan) probing; she appears randomly, like a ghost, questioning whether Riggan’s doing enough to help their daughter through her rough time. It’s enough to elicit empathy, until you remember how much of a self-absorbed asshole this guy is.

And, of course, there’s the very obvious analysis of the film’s meta-commentary. Keaton, the actor playing Riggan, starred as Batman (not Birdman) in the late ’80s and early ’90s and has had a fairly uneventful career since that point. “Birdman” could be interpreted as achieving the same goals for Keaton as it is for his character — taking on an artsy, ambitious role to prove to himself that he is still relevant. It adds yet another layer of intrigue to an otherwise conventional story.

Yet what’s most interesting about “Birdman” isn’t the meta-satire or the protagonist’s depth, but the specifically formal techniques that allow the story to unfold. Inarritu deploys a transition technique in which each scene seamlessly bleeds into the next, almost like the whole movie’s shot in one take. It achieves a heart-pounding effect, refusing to let the viewer rest for even a second.

At its heart, though, “Birdman” is about that voice from your glorious past, haunting you in your wake, driving you to risk everything for a chance to shine once more. It’s this confluence of a relatable plot and an innovative form that make “Birdman” worth flying to your local theater for.

Oh, and Ed Norton is super dope.

“Birdman” is playing at Embarcadero Center Cinema.

Contact Michael Rosen at [email protected].