To summarize what Birdman is about would probably be impossible. This is a fiercely rich movie dealing with many ideas, subjects, themes and realizations. On one surface it is a story of a washed up, once famous actor, trying to regain his fame but equally as much trying to really be regarded as talented actor. Riggan wants admiration and prestige and his alter ego, Birdman wants fame and popularity.
This dichotomy is not only quite universal for, I imagine, artists everywhere but also very timely in a day and age when we see all those talented actors getting involved with comic book franchises - something which is even talked about in an amusing scene with Riggan listing good actors stuck in superhero franchises - but we also see those actors who are unable to let go of the series that made them famous years ago. It's all Avengers and Die Hard 4 these days. It's monumental money, but truly, more often than not, it's a waste of talent.
Thanks to setting the movie close to and during opening night of Riggan's last chance for prestige - the play he is starring in and directing - we get to be inside the mind of an actor as he is battling with either being prestigious or popular while running the risk of being no one at all. His marriage ended, his daughter resents him, his girlfriend can't connect to him. This play becomes Riggan's last shot at fulfilling who he wants to be and actually having something of a value in his life.
But there is another layer to Birdman. I have never seen a movie that gives you enough to come up with your own theories, but also enough information and pieces so that many of those theories seem possible. Usually there is only one answer but here it's possible there are many. It's not just about the ending. Does he die? If so when? On the stage or as a result of a fall? Or when he is flying? Is the fireball merely a symbolism for Icarus? Perhaps the shots of jellyfish suggest he is already dead? Or maybe it simply symbolizes Riggan's brush against death? We'll never know. Or maybe we already do?
According to one view, the movie is a retelling of Shakespeare's "Macbeth". Michael Keaton is Macbeth and Birdman is Lady Macbeth, pushing him to do as he pleases (to be king, or in this case, to be popular and trending). Also Macbeth famously pursues a course of action aimed at blocking a prophecy proclaimed by witches, while here Keaton uses all his money and time to stop his show from failing as predicted by a female critic. There is also a scene when Keaton's character leaves a bar, and lines from "Macbeth" are being spoken by an actor on the street,. Finally, at one point in the play within the movie, dancing trees are seen on stage, just as in Macbeth.(x)What do I think? We hear Birdman make a statement that a 'grand gesture' is necessary. We witness it at the end. Riggan, unable to decide what he wants and being at the high point - reconciling with his daughter and seeing defeatist Birdman on the toilet - decides to get out before he can fuck it up. Why does Sam smile? Because she sees that her father is finally free. I heard that some people actually heard Riggan's laughter along with Sam's in the final moment. That seems to support my interpretation of the film. Only by letting go he finally found peace.
We see different manifestations of what is going on is symbolic way - Riggan lifted up by Birdman's monologue literally starts flying, why can't we be seeing Sam not being horrified and immediately smiling as another manifestation of the inner emotions and not the literal presentation of what is happening? In Birdman anything is possible. That film is the celluloid equivalent of a wonderful, surreal, alive imagination.
Birdman also touches on critique of method acting that is so popular lately. What I liked about the movie is that even though method actor Mike, hilariously played by Edward Norton, is seen as someone ridiculous and absurd, his way of acting works. The method is being ridiculed but not the effects of it, which are most definitely there.
I liked that the film is never mean-spirited - it doesn't look down on quirky actors or audiences loving comic book movies. It's in no way mean, or ugly or depressing. It talks about death and hopelessness but it's so rich and full of life and energy. It makes you think without making you feel sad. It's a cinematic joy at its purest form. The only time the film ventures into truly negative territory is in the brilliant scene where Riggan berates a critic set on destroying him. The critic is presented as the villain of the film and another plot device that causes more angst and uncertainty for Riggan. I'm sure it's also the cast and crew way of rage against every single bad and in their minds unfair thing that was ever written about them in a review.
Another thing is that this is a completely surprising movie coming from Inarittu. The sheer amount of visual and sonic virtuosity and the scope of the story is so far and above everything he has done so far. His other films while also dealing with lives of individuals somehow felt smaller, perhaps because the layers in Birdman are intertwined with meta layers - a film with actors about actors, a film with former comic book movie star playing a former comic book-like movie star, a film where quite a bit of the cast has comic book/superhero/blockbuster ties, with Norton once being the Hulk and Stone playing Gwen Stacy. It's stage on top of stage, but it's not a flimsy house of cards, it's a strong, well thought out construction and a marvel to witness.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki yet again defies the boundaries of gravity and human comprehension with his work. It is a rare occasion where I cannot grasp how a certain thing was done in the movie but the camera movement here is just mind blowing. There is a certain scene following the rooftop moment and ending with a taxi cab driver's lines you should pay attention to, that is one of the year's best scenes. It's freeing just to witness a scene like that. The visual side of the movie and the rhythmic, pulsing drums of its soundtrack overwhelm but never overshadow the things the movie has to say.
When it comes to acting the ensemble is just incredible - from the small roles that have no false note from the great Lindsey Duncan and Naomi Watts, through enchanting Andrea Risebourough and compassionate Amy Ryan to effortlessly funny Zach Galifianakis they all show such authenticity and create a great support for the key players in the film.
Emma Stone has never been better than she is here - she is such a natural, likable and vivid young actress and while the most talked about scene here is the moment she yells at her father I enjoyed Sam's quiet moments the most - how mesmerized she is at the things Mike says to her and how she still wants to bond with her father in spite of the distance there is between them. With her Sam you can see glimpses of such maturity, heartache and understanding behind the surface.
Edward Norton is at his best here, on board with all the crazy things in his scenes. He is hilarious and unforgettable, just like Stone also being able to convey that there is more to Mike than just being an erratic method actor. But it's really Keaton's show and he gives the best male performance of 2014 as Riggan, fully capturing his quest to find the meaning and capturing the audience in the process. Is Riggan likable? Perhaps not, but we want him to be all right.
The key theme in the movie is the subject of how relevant we are in today's world filled with social media where everyone can be popular with sufficiently scandalous - or - idiotic - viral video. We are not irrelevant, contrary to what Sam says. Our stories matter because they are own. But for Riggan? He wants more, he is not even sure what it is but it seems that all that he wants is for someone to genuinely care about him. And it looks that in the end he achieved that. And then escaped the world he no longer - or maybe never - understood.
In some way the film does romanticize the idea of succumbing to psychotic break and committing suicide. We see Riggan gain confidence because of his imaginary alter ago talking to him. We see characters on the ledges of buildings and that is where they appear truly free. We see such peace on Riggan's face in the ending and we see Sam's happiness.
Perhaps what the film is trying to say is that this proximity of death, the fact that at any moment you can just be gone, not just irrelevant as Sam says, but truly gone forever is what makes all the moments in our lives feel precious. In fact while the story can seem nihilistic - with he use of Macbeth's famous tomorrow and tomorrow part and the moments such as Riggan wiping off 'the human existence' from a tissue I think the film has a whole different outcome.
We matter. Out lives while may seem insignificant as a statistic, but they belong to us. At the same time have impact on other people, we appear in their lives and subsequently in their memories. We are part of something that is not just our own - relationships, events, situations.You may think you are irrelevant but you are not - your dreams, fantasies, interactions, issues, troubles are all part of the whole.
The titular unexpected virtue of ignorance lies perhaps in that realization - that while you feel you may be failing, the chain reaction of what you do can have impact of others. Riggan may feel he is a failure but he has a daughter who in the end seems so happy to see what her dad managed to achieve. He also brought joy to so many people - not just the audiences but Watts's struggling actress who got her big break because of his play. He may think it will all be a catastrophe but for her it's a dream come true.
In fact, when you look at it, all the characters are thinking they are being ignorant to something - Sam runs away by using drugs, Mike uses his acting, feeling 'alive' only when he is on stage, Riggan's girlfriend seems to see her relationship with him as something than what it truly is and at various points of the movie people lie to each other just to get the reaction from the other person they were hoping for.
Take the scene where Jake lies to Riggan about Scorsese being in the audience - he does this to reassure Riggan everything will be fine. Is it a lie? Yes. Does it work? Yes. The film plays around a very dangerous idea balancing its point on contradictions - lies work but it's only when Riggan does something as real as actually shooting himself on the stage the play becomes a smash hit. Riggan is real and Birdman is a lie. But what really is the answer?
In the end it's only the true ignorance that seems to be the blessing - Riggan ignores quite literally everything and ends his life. Sam ignores that her father, if you go by what seems to be the most plausible thing, is dead on the ground and focuses on the fact he found freedom. It's a ballsy statement to make and the scene to end that movie with.
I'm not gonna sit here and argue it's distasteful that the film does show suicide as a happy moment. Mostly it's about my belief that you should be free to decide when you die if you want to die. But there were plenty of people so outraged they could barely got out words saying how Whiplash's ending is 'abusive'. The thing is that these are not universal stories - those films do not make the statements that in order to achieve what you want you have to be self destructive or/and sacrifice your life. Why do people always think that the movies show role models and are claiming that people should follow them? Movies tell stories. Stories you can often relate to, but stories that are not your own.
But in no point in either Whiplash or Birdman were you asked to do exactly what the characters did. It's really a peculiar kind of narcissism when women who watch Gone Girl feel that the film represents all women and says that they lie about being raped or people who see Whiplash say it's distasteful how the film says that in order to be successful you have to be an asshole. It's not your story. Let it the fuck go.
The card next to Riggan's mirror says 'A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing'. Riggan's play and his feelings about it won't really change based on what people think, the review, the audience reception of it. Neither will his experiences change for him based on what others say. His feelings of anxiety, his experiences in life and his own emotions in the end allowed him to smile and decide to fly. And I find that beautiful.
Birdman (2014, 119)
Plot: A washed up actor, who once played an iconic superhero, battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself in the days leading up to the opening of a Broadway play.
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris & Armando Bo
Stars: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton