Warning: This article contains (some) spoilers
Former cinema superhero Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is mounting an ambitious Broadway production that he hopes will breathe new life into his stagnant career. It’s risky, but he hopes that his creative gamble will prove that he’s a real artist and not just a washed-up movie star. As opening night approaches, a castmate is injured, forcing Riggan to hire an actor (Edward Norton) who is guaranteed to shake things up. Meanwhile, Riggan must deal with his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), daughter (Emma Stone) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan).
Birdman is a powerhouse of amazing actors. Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis just to name a few. And Alejandro G. Iñárritu directs them to perfection with a script that any actor would happily remove a limb for.
I saw this film twice. First as an avid cinema-goer, fully submerging myself into the world or Birdman, and second with a goal to attempt to deconstruct this highly complicated, visually astounding film. And I think I worked it out. Birdman is a construct of a series of pushes and breaks, all experienced by the central character Riggan Thomson. When we are introduced to Riggan, he is aptly using his mentally-acquired telekinesis and conversing with his daughter Sam. The camera follows him through this process whilst the drum soundtrack joins him. This is pre-break Riggan.
After about a few pushes (coming in the form mostly of Mike Shiner, budgeting, a pregnancy scare and more crazy actors), Riggan has his first break when his ex-wife Sylvia arrives, reminding him of the real world, including his troubled daughter Sam and highlighting the fact that he is spending all of his money to acquire some sort of validation from his audience, stating “you confuse love for admiration”. Riggan is forced to see himself from the perspective of someone who is not trying to feed his ego, simply trying to make him see himself with sanity.
The pushes after this first break come heavier and more frequently. Riggan sees acclaimed New York Times reviewer Tabitha Dickinson and watches as she is talked up by his co-star. He then has an encounter with his daughter who gives him another slap in the face in the form of the truth, which he is struggling to ignore “And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again.” Whoa. – I’ve got to interject and say that Emma Stone is fucking brilliant. – After this encounter, Riggan seems removed, and we have the chance to see the crazy of actors. It’s dizzying and electrifying.
And break two comes as the sun rises the next day. Riggan reads the article in The Times. The drums thunder and after the hilarious (floor) fight between Riggan and Mike, Birdman’s voice is back (“You were a movie star/You look like a turkey with leukaemia”) and Riggan wants to cancel the preview, but is delivered gratification by Jake at the opportunity to perform for a full house and “Martin Scor-sees”. One thing to note at this point in the film is that every ‘actor’ character in this film is never their true selves. They are ‘acting’ outside of the theatre, gaging reactions from people, and they need everyone else to be acting, too. They’re insane.
The final preview is on and Riggan experiences one of his final pushes, seeing Mike and Sam together. He goes for a smoke and is locked out. In his underwear. As he walks through Times Square people yell “Birdman” like echoes in his own subconscious. After this ordeal, Sam meet Riggan in his dressing room and we see an ingenuity in his eyes as he admits that “[He] was a shitty father”. This scene was the last chance Riggan had to save himself. It’s fleeting and it’s gone. He’s gone.
Back at the bar, Riggan confronts Ms. Dickinson about her article and profession. He almost begs for his life in this scene. But she curtly replies “I’m going to destroy your play”. And with those words, with that last push, Riggan Thomson is broken.
From this point, Birdman becomes a completely different film. Surrealism creeps in and we experience Riggan’s break alongside him. It’s truly beautiful. It’s opening night and Sylvia visits during the intermission. Riggan is finally calm. Completely removed, but completely himself. Honest. And it’s too late. And then BANG.
I won’t say what BANG means in case you haven’t seen the film, but everything that has happened is beautifully tied up by this BANG. We come to the realisation that not only the play is the performance, but so is life. With our obsession with celebrity and social media it’s all one big performance and one big audience.
And Riggan gets his perfect ending in super-realism, with a great big “Fuck you” from Birdman. He is what he wanted to be and his work is done.
Holy hell this movie was good. And I didn’t even mention that it was edited so the film played out in one singular shot. I could literally write about Birdman forever. It’s spectacular.