Birdman (2014) – Death Approached via Delusion

Birdman, subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is a difficult film to categorize in terms of genres. Here is a sampling of some of the characterizations I discovered while reading film reviews: “a giddy fantasia of themes and genres, not all of which fully cohere”, “part sex farce, part Broadway satire, part magical-realist fable, part rumination on celebrity in the age of social media”, “an indictment of Hollywood’s obsession with blockbusters, franchises, and opening weekend numbers and ultimately as a critique of art itself.” My personal reaction to the film resonates with all of the above, but in this commentary I will focus on only a single issue – How does the main character, Riggan (played by Michael Keaton) approach death. [1]

The opening credits contain the following quote:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

This comes from a book of poems by Raymond Carver, and is also the inscription on Carver’s tombstone. [2] This opening quote, along with a brief shot of a meteor crashing towards earth, repeated at the close of the film, gives us a hint that Riggan is probably on a trajectory towards destruction and death. With this opening, the film invites us to ask a question explored in the remainder of the film – What kind of a legacy does Riggan want to leave behind as he approaches death?

From the opening scene when we first see Riggan, apparently levitating in his room either talking to himself or hearing voices, it is not entirely clear whether he has magical powers or a mental disorder. And as the film goes on he appears more and more exhausted and psychologically unstable, apparently torn between competing psychological drives — ambition for past stardom versus a desire to do something more serious before he leaves this world. Our perception of Riggan’s psychological state is amplified by the cinematography – long tracking shots with a hand held camera that give the entire film somewhat of a manic, schizoid feel. In later scenes we get to see the embodiment of the voice Riggan is hearing (the superhero Birdman character that Riggan once played on film in his glory days [3]) hovering over his shoulder as he walks, and then accompanying him as the two of them soar through the air. Two scenes in the film (One when his friend walks into his dressing room while Riggan is performing “magic”, and a second when Riggan walks out of a cab after “flying”) establish that Riggan is imagining these things, or at the least that the magic goes away when someone else is present to observe.

What we are left with is a simple story of a man who was once a superhero movie star, but has lost himself at some point during his career and is now falling into some form of psychosis characterized by hallucinations. He is struggling to find himself and leave a proper legacy before he leaves this world. His struggles in the first two-thirds of the film are primarily with his arrogant, brash young co-star Mike (played by Edward Norton), who perhaps reminds Riggan of his former self. While watching the film I fully expected that the ending, when it came, would involve either some kind of escalation or resolution of this conflict. Surprisingly, the character Mike fades into the background in the last third of the film, and is not even heard from in the final act. When Riggan finally gets around to figuring out what is important in his life, part of what he discovers is that he really doesn’t give a shit what Mike or people like him think. What he does care about is what his best friend Jake (played by Zach Galifianakis), and, especially, his daughter Sam (played by Emma Stone) think. He wants the belovedness alluded to in the opening credits.

And by the final scene he gets it all! His play got the kind of review he wanted from the critic who had threatened to sabotage his play, his relationship with his best friend is on good terms, and most important, he is able to share a tender moment with his daughter and she was able to see how special and powerful and magical he really was.

If you like that ending, stop reading here. SPOILER ALERT. Now for a dose of reality. Watching the film carefully makes it clear that Riggin died when he shot himself on stage at the end of his opening night performance in the play What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the last scenes in the hospital were a dream happening inside his head as he died. I won’t catalog all of the evidence here, but will point out one critical detail. There are only two obvious jump-cuts in the film. The first is after we see the burning meteor crashing to earth in the opening credits. Then the remainder of the film runs as essentially one long take (no obvious jump cuts that take us from one location to a totally different location) until the moment when Riggan pulls the trigger of the gun while on stage. Then the action jumps to the last scenes in the hospital, all of which have a subtle, ethereal, other-world quality unlike anything seen earlier in the film. So in the closing shot when we see Riggan’s daughter Sam looking up to the sky lovingly and smile as though she sees Riggan flying away, we should most likely consider this to be a dream of what Riggan hoped for rather than a depiction of reality. Riggan got what he wanted, his belovedness, in his own mind as he died. His approach to death was delusional, but meaningful for him. And as the subtitle of the film informs us, sometimes there is an Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.

Ron Boothe


1. During the month of November the Tacoma film club watched and then discussed three films in which the main character was confronted with impending death. The separate ways the characters approached death in these films can be associated with three psychological terms, Depression, Denial, and Delusion. The current commentary is for Birdman (2014) — Approaching Death via Delusion
The other two films discussed this month are:
Synecdoche, New York (2008) – Approaching Death via Denial
Melancholia (2011) – Approaching Death via Depression

2. Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall (1994), a book of poems published posthumously. Raymond Carver plays a prominent role throughout the film. The plot revolves around the fact that Riggan is in the process of trying get into production one of Carver’s plays, What we talk about when we talk about love. Riggan also informs us that the reason he wants to put on this particular play is because he was originally inspired to become an actor by Carver. Years ago Carver had attended a school play Riggan performed in and left a note for him after the performance, written on a cocktail napkin that Riggans still carries in his wallet.

3. Similar to the casting of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, having Michael Keaten, a former Batman not much in the limelight in recent years, play the lead character in Birdman makes it almost impossible to watch the film without also, even if only subliminally, relating the character to the actor’s off-screen persona.

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