Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s film Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is an electric fever-dream of a movie. It’s a swan dive into ego and madness shot with the kinetic motion of a seemingly unedited single shot. The entire film wasn’t shot in just one go, but it feels that way because large chunks of it actually were, an incredible technical feat for the actors and crew.
Just reflecting on this technical triumph is dizzying, but what’s even more impressive is how beautifully Inarritu’s story handles some of the deepest existential questions human harbor about ourselves. It’s an insanely hard thing to do. There’s nothing like the disappointment of a jarring, land on a riverbed when you expected to deep dive. Edward Norton’s character Mike Shiner represents how pretentious we can seem when we confuse sophistication and education with wisdom, when we use a bit of insight we’re able to glean to cynically serve our self-purposes instead of allowing it to help us grow.
The main character, Riggan Thomson, is a washed-up actor who once achieved the pinnacle of fame and fortune playing the superhero character Birdman. He’s now trying to jump-start his career and find critical redemption and acknowledgment with a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He’s completely broke and risking everything for this neurosis-fraught production, and he’s also hearing a voice in his head: a gravely version of his own voice as Birdman. It adds weight to the story that Keaton was once Batman, Edward Nortan played the Incredible Hulk, and Emma Stone, who portrays Thomson’s troubled daughter, is contemporary Spiderman’s Gwen Stacy. It wouldn’t be necessary to cast this movie with actors familiar with superhero franchises, but it does cast a knowing shadow across the entire film.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
The film opens with this quote
“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
? Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall
Raymond Carver’s presence in the film is like another character. While Birdman speaks to Riggan directly and appears before him in all his metallic finery, Raymond Carver never manifests himself to Riggan. Instead, Riggan is striving towards Carver, toward an artistic ideal that is in conflict with the broad acclaim his stint as Birdman gave him. He wants his ideal of Raymond Carver, and his ideal of himself as Birdman to somehow reconcile within him, and the conflict is driving him mad.
He wants to be beloved on all fronts, to have fans and critics alike be satisfied with his work. He wants to soar over the city and soar into the pen of the staunchest critic. When an unlucky series of events leaves him striding through Times Square in his underwear and, instead, soaring into the absurdist land of online virality, his daughter tries to explain that this is a type of power, too.
And it is, it’s a type of power that a more self-aware, less self-important (or unsell-aware and completely shameless) celebrity could laugh into a successful career change, but viral humiliation is not the type of power Riggan wants. Not taking yourself seriously seems to be a secret to a less miserable life, but in order to truly do so, the ego must relinquish its grandiose ideas about the self. This isn’t something Riggan is even close to being able to do. He’s so far gone; he can’t counter the voice in his head with a different perspective.
Wanting impossible things is the shortest path to disappointment and unfulfillment, but those are exactly the things he wants. He wants his estranged wife (Amy Ryan) to love even his worst movies; he wants to prove something to everyone who has written him off as just the superhero guy. He wants everyone to give him the love and devotion he thinks he deserves without him having to give anything back in return.
He also wants to kill himself, but does he kill himself? Is he actually dead at the end of the film? The answer to this seems to be left up the air, but I think there are clues that can lead to a reasonable conclusion.
When Riggan’s daughter Sam looks out the window in the very last shot, she’s the first character to see these fantastical things Riggan’s doing. All of his levitating, telekinesis, flying, and explosions happen when he’s the only one bearing witness. When the light falls on the actor, he claims responsibility to his lawyer (Zach Galifianakis,) leaving the possibility open that all these things are really happening, but the light could have just fallen and he imbued it with physical proof that he was capable of such things.
His most impressive stunts happen in the middle of the city: he causes an explosion and flys to the tops of buildings. During this impressive scene, he talks with a couple of people, but all of that deflates into part of the fantasy when he is seen rushing into the theater and then a cab driver runs after him for payment. That was a pivotal moment in unlocking what’s really going on with Birdman.
The cab scene seems to conflict with the last shot of the movie, but it really doesn’t. What the cab scene does establish is that not only is Riggan imagining these things, but that part of his imagining sometimes involves other people reacting.
There is a possibility that he actually died when shot himself on stage at the end of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the last scenes were a dream he had before his heart stopped beating. The fact that he got the review he wanted from the prickly critic, and his relationships with his daughter, wife, and best friend seem to be almost instantly repaired seem to suggest that. The belovedness he was seeking is suddenly all there for him in a neat little package. The audience sees Sam look up and smile after he jumps out of the window, but this could just be part of his dream come true. Not only did he share a tender moment with his daughter and critical accolades, but she saw was able to see how special and powerful he truly thought he was. This is his imagination’s refutation of her soliloquy on human insignificance, and her assertion that he was just as unimportant as everyone else.
Everyone from his daughter Sam, to professional rival Mike Shiner people are trying to tell him he’s on the wrong path, that he is reaching for the wrong things, but the only voice he listens to is Birdman. Perhaps the most pure delivery of this message was when Sam shows him a physical model of how insignificant human life is to the universal using a roll of toilet paper with marks on it, but he is unmoved by her demonstration of profundity. Instead of accepting his existential place in the world, he clings to his dream of greatness.
Mike Shiner has more malicious intentions, as he’s stoking his own beast of an ego, when he burns Riggan’s idol: a word of encouragement written on a cocktail napkin by Raymond Carver after he saw Riggan in a student play. Riggan chose to be an actor because of that scrawled note and carries this talisman with him always. Shiner points out that Carver, a hopeless alcoholic for most of his life, probably only wrote that note because he was drunk. In a further cynical move, and to twist the knife even further, he steals Riggan’s story about Carver inspiring him to become an actor. It’s a defeat of meaning Riggan can’t seem to withstand, and he later leaves the cocktail napkin at the bar, the magic having been sucked out of it. In a way, he’s abandoned this outside hero, Carver, and clings to Birdman, the superhero version of himself.
What do you think? Is Riggan dead? Was he dead the whole time?