Birdman opens with C-list celebrity Riggan (Michael Keaton), a superhero has-been trying to reclaim glory as a serious Broadway actor, meditating and levitating before rehearsal of his play. Wait – levitating? Yes. It seems that Riggan has picked up some super powers along the way.birdman

But this movie is so subtly engrossing, its rhythm unrelenting, that I actually forgot this little nugget of information until the next bit of surrealism came our way, presented just as slyly as the first. Some remnant of his Birdman alterego remains, and narrates Riggan’s present tense in a voice reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Batman, driving home the satirical meta-performance at work here. Director Iñárritu gets right up in his grill, nursing long but very intimate shots that show unflinchingly every wrinkle, every worry line ever earned by these actors.

Set almost entirely behind the scenes at St James theatre and shot in long, loooooooong takes that keep the film moving briskly, there’s a beauty and a mystique that really locked me in. Finally  Iñárritu has found his element. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki floats the camera down corridors and ascends smoothly through the scaffolding and the balconies like an unobserved peeping tom. We take our cues from this camera work. We race to find new action, we catch our breath when travelling down darkened hallways. In this way, the movie feels serene yet is in constant motion. The music helps us keep pace and is sometimes so coolly frenzied that musicians forget they aren’t supposed to be seen!

Riggan, meanwhile, is crippled by all the nay-sayers in his life: the junkie daughter (Emma Stone), the anxious lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), the guilt-tripping ex-wife (Amy Ryan) – but none more so than that voice in his head that slowly cannibalizes him by the end of the film. When one of his actors is put out of commission, he’s forced to bring on board stage actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who immediately threatens to outshine him. With his own superhero baggage (Hulk, anyone?), Norton threatens to casually steal the spotlight from Keaton as well with a brilliant send-up to Method acting, and a nod toward his own reputation for being difficult on set, but Keaton reminds us why he left the Batman franchise in the first place – dude is a first rate actor when he plays crazy.

The movie is ambitiously self-aware and asks smart-aleck questions like, why bother making a $20 million dollar movie when you can go viral for free? This may not be ground-breaking material but as long as Keaton is in on the joke, the monster egos and insecurities, the fraud and the acerbic wit, it’s all part of a complex self-examination that’s fascinating to witness.

Matt and I saw this movie nearly a week ago and it’s taken me this long to even begin unpacking my feelings about it, and this after an all-you-can-eat-sushi session in which we debriefed and compared notes. As Matt will tell you, the movie is also  Iñárritu’s excuse to poke back at the critics who have called him out on his self-important, self-conscious work in the past (Babel, Biuitiful) even though this movie actually seems to acknowledge that these criticisms may have been valid.

I really enjoyed this movie. It’s a pleasure to watch, a puzzle to figure out, and a commentary just begging for feedback. Please, give us yours. Assume spoilers in the comments.

17 thoughts on “Birdman

  1. Jay Post author

    Okay, so let’s talk about THAT ENDING. When Emma Stone leaves the room, it would seem that Michael Keaton climbed out onto the windowsill. When she comes back, she finds the room empty and the window open. Did he jump?
    The daughter goes to the window and looks down. We expect that she will find a body on the street but instead she looks up, toward a flock of birds, and her face reflects joy. Is Riggan flying? Has he gone to join his fellow birds?


  2. Jay Post author

    Throughout the movie we see several instances of Riggan’s apparent supernatural powers – he levitates, he moves things with his mind, he flies. But those ‘powers’ are all called into question when a cabbie provides an alternate explanation – that he has not flown but simply cabbed it and not paid. Are these delusions? Episodes of psychotic break? Fantasy? Are they real because they are real to him?
    Do we see his daughter look up toward they sky, not because he is really there, but because that’s how he would have picture it when he jumped? Is it just nicer for her to imagine him there instead of the bloody reality down below? Or is he actually flapping around in the sky?


  3. Jay Post author

    I think it’s fair to assume he was suicidal as it was a botched attempt the night before that’s landed him in the hospital. Why did he shoot himself? Is the voice in his head finally too much to bear? Is the pressure to mount a “comeback” too much? Or was he giving something to the critic to really write about, immortalizing his performance and ensuring headlines?


  4. Jay Post author

    Is his attempted suicide on stage a way for him to prove that he’s more than just “cartoons and pornography”? Is he trying to bring relevance to his art, or is he just a schizophrenic with a loaded gun?


  5. Jay Post author

    Is it possible that he did die on the stage that night and that everything in the denouement is just his imagination? Because the gunshot is the first real CUT of the film (perhaps because he’s dead). The scene the next morning is probably everything he might have hoped – his wife is loving, his daughter attentitive, the public adoring. Even his nose looked suspiciously whole and healthy for a man who’d shot it off and had it reconstructed just hours before.


  6. Jay Post author

    He was obessed with not being “famous enough” , ie, the dream where he died in a plane crash but was overlooked because George Clooney was also on the flight. This is his way of ensuring he goes out at the height of his career, in a way that will be talked about, and best of all – he’ll never have to read these reviews.


  7. mattasshole

    I can’t tell whether or not he’s mentally ill or if the Birdman scenes are just there to symbolically represent his self-doubt and the temptation to take the easy road which is to reprise his famous role. I think that the last scene suggests the latter because from Emma Stone’s perspective, he is going to fly again. I don’t know if that means he is going to thrive again as an actor and as a man (hopefully as a father too) or if he is going to play Birdman again. I do like your suggestion though that he actually does kill himself and that she looks up to the sky as part of her own delusion. I hadn’t thought of that.


  8. Jay Post author

    I think it’s mental illness. His little moments are always interrupted, often by Zach Galifinakis, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, but he kind of represents reality. When he walks in, the furniture is not throwing itself, it’s just a middle aged actor having a tantrum.
    I enjoy the fact that the ending is pretty much a Rorschach test of your personality. I think I believe that he died on stage and the hospital scene is a delusion (whether his, hers, or ours is another thing).


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