The following is a discussion that involves significant plot details about the 2015 Best Picture winning film Birdman, including the ending. I also discuss spoilers from the films Black Swan and Gravity. If you have yet to see the film, I encourage you to do so before reading the following write up.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was the the surprise critical darling of the latter half of 2014, and for good reason. It is the finest work that Michael Keaton has done in years as he plays Riggan Thomson, an aging star who is trying to reclaim his identity as an actor by directing and starring in a run of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the Raymond Carver play. Riggan Thomson found his fame at a younger age playing the super hero Birdman, before leaving the successful franchise, a move that sent his career on a downward slope. Those familiar with Keaton know that this is a meta-textual reference to his stint as Batman, and director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, Biutiful) relies on the audience’s knowledge to allow this film to work on multiple layers. While the initial viewing is thrilling, the layers of meaning and commentary are what give the movie its depth and rewatchability, and I’d like to explore a bit of what makes Birdman challenging, but also quite rewarding.
Riggan Thomson is a complex character, but not immediately so. What makes this character work is the fact that it almost seems like you can boil him down into a simple set of core beliefs many times throughout the film, but at the last moment there is a crack in the veneer that causes you to realize there is something more lurking just beneath the surface. There have been a number of vocal detractors, despite the film’s positive critical reception, and I feel like too many of them have just run with the Riggan who wears his heart on his sleeve and is a man of single-minded determination, which I will admit would be a very simple character. Bearing that in mind, for every Riggan who is obsessed with garnering the public’s approval, there is a self-deprecating Riggan who loathes the controlling person he has become. For every Riggan who drunkenly pontificates to a snarky critic about the emptiness and mean-spiritedness of her job, there is a Riggan who deep down realizes that she is just another facet of the system that he is trying to ingratiate himself into in order to get the approval and prestige he desires. For every Riggan who is upset that the smarmy actor he called upon as a last minute casting choice (Ed Norton) is hitting on his recovering drug-addict daughter (Emma Stone), there is a Riggan who acknowledges that he is the last one to try and manage his daughter’s life, especially after all the grief he’s caused her.
In a slightly different mode, the effect of this movie could have been like 2009’s Black Swan, another film that mixed a performer’s unflinching obsession and questionable mental state in a way that begs the audience to examine the cost of it all. In Black Swan, we are left with the image of the protagonist bleeding out on stage after having given the performance that is literally the culmination of her life. Is the cost of perfection worth death? She exudes a kind of transcendence and her words, “I was perfect,” go against our knee-jerk reaction to the contrary. Without its hospital room denouement, Birdman could have done something very similar, but the time it gives us to ponder what sort of conclusions Riggan has reached during this final scene offer a very different encapsulation of which direction his character development has taken.
The ending caused me to draw a comparison with a very different film, Gravity. Iñárritu made fantastic use in Birdman of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who collaborated with Cuaron last year for Gravity), but where I saw the connection was in Riggan’s sense of release in the final scene. One analysis of Gravity is that it is thematically based on the Buddhist concept of samsara, the wheel of death and rebirth. Ryan (Sandra Bullock) attempts to secure a method of re-entry into the atmosphere before being buffeted again by the debris resulting from an incident early in the film. Each time the Earth’s orbit sends shards of metal hurtling toward her, she loses more and more hope toward ever achieving a safe return to Earth. There are plenty of fan theories that at some point in the movie’s narrative Ryan has died, and the film is actually about her soul achieving some sort of solace, an ultimate acceptance and transcendence of suffering from the physical world, and by extent the mourning of her daughter who has passed away. To draw this belabored comparison between Black Swan, Gravity, and Birdman together, what made this film work for me is that it ends on a note much more similar to Gravity, though parts of Riggan’s character suggest Black Swan.
After Riggan shoots off his nose at the play’s performance, it is revealed that the play is considered a massive hit, garnering the critical recognition he has been both seeking and sheepishly condemning throughout the film. As his best friend and lawyer (Zach Galifianakis) describes the overwhelmingly positive response, Riggan seems dismissive and distant. What makes this a powerful character moment is not that Riggan has accomplished what he set out to do, but rather that he has achieved a release from the desires that he was so slavishly following, contributing to his seeming psychosis. There is also plenty of ambiguity regarding the ending. Did Riggan really kill himself on stage? Does he jump out the window at the end? Does he really possess some preternatural ability? Has he been dead for years, after committing suicide on the beach? As in Gravity, trying to figure out the literal sequence of events is irrelevant to the emotional core of the character. Riggan’s critical success is so far removed from where his character has grown to at the film’s conclusion, and the wondrous look on his daughter’s face shows us a positive symbol that he has become completely unfettered from the concerns that damaged all of his relationships earlier in the film.
Let’s consider this from a slightly different perspective, examining again what happens on the stage. All evidence points to the idea that Riggan meant to kill himself on stage when he grabs a real gun instead of the prop gun. He would commit the ultimate act of self-sacrifice for his art, and prove to the critics of the world just how committed he was to his performance. Whether the last minute angling of the gun toward his nose was intentional or not, I would argue that something did die on that stage, the persona of the serious actor that Riggan was so obsessed with crafting. Birdman is not the story of a man whose botched suicide allowed him to eat his cake and have it too, but rather a man who killed one of his two selves in order that the other could flourish. His interaction with his daughter in the hospital room reinforces that his love for her is more on his mind than the rave reviews his performance got. All of this echoes a line from the play:”‘It was love,’ Terri said. ‘Sure, it’s abnormal in most people’s eyes. But, he was willing to die for it. He did die for it.'” Riggan Thomson, the actor, died on stage for the love of his daughter so that Riggan Thomson, the father, would have the opportunity to rebuild his life.
As with any ambiguous ending, it’s perfectly fine to disagree with all of this. There are several pivotal points in the film that can be read wildly differently merely based on the how the audience interprets the character’s motivations. You may think that Riggan is wholly the self-centered jerk who lucks out and gets everything he wants in the end, plus a new nose. You may think he has become completely delusional and really does commit suicide. Whatever your reading, films like Birdman show that what we take away from a film is an individual reading, and whether you saw Riggan’s story as tragic or redemptive is as much a personal, emotional experience as it is about interpreting the events of the film. Either way, Birdman is a film that’s worth watching multiple times, once merely to experience the flash and craft of the cinematography and storytelling, and additionally to unpack the layers built into its main character. It’s not quite Synecdoche, New York, but it’s definitely worth your consideration as far more than just a one-and-done movie experience.
What did you think of Birdman? How did you interpret Riggan’s actions? How did the ending leave you feeling? Let us know in the comments below, and make sure to share this article with your friends if you enjoyed reading.