Birdman centers on an intense 2-3 day period in the weird life of Riggan Thompson. From the get-go, this movie operates on a level that’s so “meta” that it’s potentially distracting or pretentious: Riggan is currently a wreck because he’s a neurotic thespian writing, directing, producing, and starring in his potential comeback – a Broadway play based on a short story by Raymond Carver. Riggan is a long-absent actor whose career is overwhelmed by the highly-successful superhero franchise he starred in decades ago... And Riggan is portrayed by Michael Keaton, the same guy who played the lead in Tim Burton’s late 80’s/early 90’s Batman films. The picture’s barely begun and yet you wonder if the writer/director is making fun of the viewer.
I could take ages unpacking this movie. It has a subtitle, but unlike Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, this one is parenthetical. It centers on a Raymond Carver short story, and uses part of a poem of his for its opening text. I have no problem doing the research necessary to look into and piece these elements together – in fact, I take pleasure from it – but I don’t know how helpful any of it would be. We’re talking about a picture wherein the things that just happen are not constrained by a consistent internal logic. Hell, the opening scene has Thompson flying and using telekinesis – while having a debate with an internal voice that’s supposed to be Riggan’s old Birdman role, a voice that’s as “gritty” and “rough” as the growl Christian Bale used in Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
So what can I tell someone who hasn’t seen this movie yet? For starters, it’s a visual masterwork. The CGI is smooth and looks beautiful, used to create various different effects during the picture’s running time. Each location feels real (I’ve been to most of them repeatedly), with set dressing that’s distractingly natural. Many (or most) shots are noticeably beautiful, and it kind of looks as if every single trick – odd angles, forced perspective, use of dark spaces to hide edits – is employed here.
But it’s the design to the cinematography that probably steals the show - Birdman is filmed so that the camera floats from one scene to another, throughout and over the theater Riggan has rented, as well as the Midtown Manhattan streets surrounding it. Through editing, it appears as if we’re watching one long camera take in and around its setting, and the shots are just f--king gorgeous. As a professional photographer, I can say it: the execution of the camera movement and creating effective transitions from one scene to the next is about as fine a bit of work as I’ve ever seen.
It's also a wildly funny film. Very few actual jokes are made by the players, but you can tell that writer-director Iñárritu has a strong and sharp comic mind. He uses situational humor as nicely as he does comedic lines, employs absurdism and satire, and the nature of the jokes range from gentle to urbane to kind of vicious. Like Gone Girl, Birdman is a very, very modern film, especially in the dialogue - and it's not even González' native language! I'm... really struggling not to spoil any of the lines here, so just know that I'm a comedian and I say it's dead-funny.
The performances are similarly exceptional. For some reason, Michael Keaton’s sparing presence in films over the last while has led people to be amazed by his work here. Well, don’t call it a comeback - Keaton never left, he took on less work. I never forgot that he came from excellent roots as a comic actor, being toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks for a while. In My Life, anyone can see how fine Keaton is at his job, and there's no question left as to how well he can just nail serious parts. The role of Riggan does provide Michael with a rich palette to work with, but (as with Dumbo) the magic was always inside of him; it should be readily apparent to viewers.
Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, and Zach Galifianakis are all excellent, compelling, and interesting. Even when you have no idea what’s happening or are struggling to figure out the point of the latest scene, they keep you engaged with and invested in the quasi-calamitous events that push the narrative forward. It would be quite easy for many viewers to give up in frustration as people have obtuse conversations where the audience only half-follows what’s going on. It’s also a big obstacle that a lot of this turmoil involves actors complaining about things that only actors would relate to is a bit of an obstacle, but you never feel like your time is being wasted because their supporting roles are written and acted so well.
Which brings us to Ed Norton’s Mike Shiner. Shiner drives at least half of the drama here, since he’s the method actor who alternately saves and derails Thompson’s play. The impact that he has, on the story and the viewer, is immeasurable – particularly since Ed portrays a “difficult” actor, a reputation which Norton cemented for himself when he starred in a superhero blockbuster. And at least one of his scenes has a clear nod to Fight Club. Dear god, so much meta here...
Shiner’s the most fun part in the whole film, with a knack for talking reasonably and then acting unhinged. Mike has so much energy, and yet his emotions parallel and play off of Riggan’s weary turmoil in a way that feels like all the greatest playwrights got together to craft a figure that’s as absurd as possible. The fact that his role is so naturalistic and yet pointedly-artificial is a testament to the writing here. It’s really no wonder that Norton got an Oscar nod for his work, although I will go on record now to say that I'm glad Simmons won. Whiplash would fall apart without J.K., whereas Birdman without Norton would be really, really good – just not as good. Actually, maybe we can both win - bump Simmons up to Best Actor and give the supporting award to Norton.
All of these elements are joined in one place and one effort, and it's impossible not to smile as they collide off each other. From minute one, the audience is told that Thompson is in an unstable guy in a stressful environment – and that his emotional instability may be joined by mental instability on top of it. Then you add factors like: Naomi Watts’ Lesley, an actress who’s on Broadway for the first time; Norton, as Lesley’s boyfriend who brings far too much thought into his performance and yet far too little consideration for his compatriots; Riseborough as the second female part, and Riggan’s love interest; and Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter/assistant, a young woman who’s fresh out of rehab.
At times, this collective angst and anxiety feels like the Seinfeld cast were stuck in an episode written by a crazy person (Norton would be Kramer, obviously). It’s not a surprise to witness these people antagonize or help each other cope, it’s just a shock to see how well it all blends with itself. We see capital-T Theater come together, and it’s as ugly and sloppy in its own way as all the rehearsals in Whiplash; it’s just far less clear where any of this antagonism and discord is heading.
But, now, dear reader, we get to the part where I have to go into spoilers. As such, I ask all of you who have seen Birdman
Again: I can understand why some viewers were angry. The movie is nominally about a bunch of actors going through stereotypical degrees of confusion, despair, and childish outbursts. Shiner decides to extend his method technique to trying to actually have sex with Lesley in front of preview crowds, even after her third shout of “no.” Lesley is a newcomer who wants tons of support, while her moods and desires bounce back and forth like a metronome. And Riggan (as well as others) gets to rail face-first at the camera about how simple, stupid, and disgustingly-popular comic book movies are.
Forget about the play-within-a-movie aspect. We’re talking about a picture that seems to have been made by and for people who are in the performing arts - one that is both cloistered enough to seem narcissistic/cloistered in addition to being jarring enough to simply annoy anyone who just wants to see a movie and doesn’t freaking care what tremulous feelings are felt by the precocious actors in it.
The fact that Birdman seems to be speaking to Hollywood itself rather than the audience is already is a big potential dividing line. But then we come to the ending – one that seems to deprive everything that's come before on any grounding or potential meaning. What are we left with here? A story about actors behaving like wild animals?
From the start, we’re given to believe that Riggan is either seriously disturbed - or that he’s making a mental game of his real life actions, blaming “Birdman” for trashing his room when Thompson himself does it. So when we find our lead in the hospital – not dead, as we would expect, but in decent shape and now wildly-popular with critics – it feels like the director wants to “pull the wool” so far over viewers’ eyes that we abandon all sense of reality.
But, then, Emma Stone’s Sam Thompson reenters her dad’s hospital room and finds it empty. She looks out the window, to where the audience assumes she will see her dad final, successful attempt at suicide... And she gazes up, to where Birdman would be flying about, and she gasps in wonder and excitement, and the credits roll.
It’s a huge F--- YOU to anyone on the other side of the screen. We’re led to believe that Riggan has been hallucinating this whole time because we’ve witnessed an earlier moment where he thinks he flew to somewhere, yet has to deal with an angry cab driver who wants to be paid for their fare. But Sam’s reaction tells us that Riggan really has a supernatural aspect to his life and that his child is only just noticing it.
I found this ending to be frustrating and confusing, too, dear readers. It breaks the narrative we’ve seen so far, requiring us to accept facts that the director has already seemingly disproven. I didn't hate it, however it seemed to undermine the connection to Carver's story in everyone trying to stop feeling lost by express their feelings as well as their feelings about feelings. After about five hours, another idea struck me – a possibility that redeemed the ending and allowed that connection to survive.
As I described above, I looked over Carver’s work and did my best to connect it to the actions and themes portrayed in this film. This did not help much, although it did give me a better understanding of the central play that we see rehearsed so many times, and it did inform all the quiet scenes between Watts and Riseborough, between Keaton and Galifianakis, and between Keaton and my Ryan (as Sylvia, Thompson’s ex-wife). In short, people provide each other with varying degrees and types of support, all trying to make sense of themselves and their feeling in the same ways that inexperienced youngsters do.
But, then, I decided to take a different tack to this narrative – a narrative whose internal logic is destroyed by its final scene – and try to imagine how everything here could make sense. What I came to, in the end, is that Birdman is not following the perspective of Riggan Thompson. It’s following the perspective of his daughter, Sam Thompson.
Throughout the story, we are told that Sam is fresh out of/still in drug rehab. We know that her parents divorced, and yet we watch these touching, close-to-climax scenes wherein Sylvia Thompson talks to Riggan in a way that is far too kind, honest, and supportive for an ex-wife to speak to an ex-husband who cheated on her. And, just before we get to his suicide scene, we witness Riggan telling Sylvia how he tried to kill himself after he betrayed her trust.
So what makes the most sense is that this story is all taking place in Emma Stone's character's head. Sam isn’t really out of rehab in the narrative; her dad and mom are both worried about her relapse incessantly. And, since the ending involves her dad’s suicide attempt turning into a moment of awe for her – and, wow, does she look like a strung-out addict finding the light in that last shot - I think the right interpretation is that Sam has been the protagonist all along, and what she's experienced is her brain trying to get over her father's suicide.
Consider the context: Riggan is both forgotten and remembered for his most famous work, just as Sam will always be known as “that celebrity’s screwup daughter.” Sam is repeatedly sidelined and then brought to the fore in much the way one should do with a stealth leading role. And her dad does everything you'd want him to.
Riggan is for some reason gushing to people about his feelings to everyone, just in the same way we want the most important people in our own lives to be forthright and truthful. He somehow achieves a sense of peace with his ex-wife that is so healthy and happy that it feels unrealistic. He parents his kid a little, but doesn't constrain her with too much attention. And, despite the odds, Riggan’s herculean effort wins over a critic who was guaranteed to unfairly hate him.
That’s exactly the kind of narrative that a kid would want to tell about an absent parent – fraught with difficulty, but ultimately triumphant, recognized and respected beyond all real-life expectation. Amidst all the CGI hallucinations, that wonderfully-odd cut where Shiner makes out with Sam while overlooking a rehearsal that Shiner actually appears in at the same time... It’s all put together in a dream-like way that works best if you assume that we are actually watching a dream. You just have to figure out whose dream it is.
Riggan has this nice, quiet talk with his ex. They don’t argue acrimoniously or childishly, and she even does him the kindness of being receptive when he discusses how badly he hurt her before. Although Mr. Thompson seems to have attained inner calm, he speaks his peace to the woman he hurt, and she accepts his apology. Then, the guy tries to kill himself again, fails to do so, and disappears from his family’s life again – in a way that is impossible by any real logic. Doesn't it make sense that this is a dream or hallucination in light of a drumline group appearing on-stage, alongside the guys paid to dress like the Avengers in Times Square?
What makes the most sense here is that Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is about Sam Thompson dealing with her dad’s long-ago suicide by jellyfish. Shiner is exactly the sort of character one would meet in rehab, and Sam’s flirtation with him fits that context to a tee. The play’s success is so unrealistic that the acclaim requires some form of explanation. And, if this is all a drugged-out or drying out, teenaged Sam trying to come to grips with her father’s absence, then this sort of story is exactly the sort of thing she might tell herself in order to get over her family’s loss.
You can call me crazy if you want, but I dare you to come up with an interpretation that joins all these competing ideas and concepts in a way that actually works with the ending. I double-dog dare you - just put a spoiler warning in the comments section if it's necessary, please.
Birdman was a great experience. It’s a gloriously-different, inventive work, challenging, and quite creative in its script, plotting, and acting. I’m not sure that it was the hands-down best film of 2014, but I know that I have no problem with the AMPAS choosing to give it the Best Picture Oscar. It was an outwardly self-indulgent move, bestowing the biggest prize of the year on a movie about how hard actors have it. It was also a little hypocritical, since Birdman is so self-aware and rails against mainstream studio releases. And yet it's a unique, fine feature film.
If you see it – and you should – you should be prepared for anything; you should be ready for a challenging movie that makes you wonder what the hell its story even is. But you should also know that you’re going to need to put your thinking cap on before you watch it. And if it’s not your sort of cinema, that’s no problem – just know that there is so much “meat” in this meal that it being hard to “digest” properly is not the fault of the filmmakers or the people who praised it, just that audiences are not used to such a rich, multi-course feast. Anyone could dismiss it as excessive, but I don’t believe that its strengths – or the joys you can derive therefrom – are that hard to notice, or appreciate.