What Does 'Birdman' Mean?
Birdman, the latest film by Alejandro González Iñárritu, is a black comedy that is locked inside of a puzzle. Iñárritu has a penchant for self-important work that is often inaccessible. Birdman yet is his most accessible work, but it still tends to leave you dazed.
Riggan Thomson himself, played by a harried Michael Keaton is the center of the film, as he is the center of his own life. The film is clearly metafictional at certain stages—Thomson is an actor most known for playing the popular superhero Birdman. He was in a trilogy and when asked to return he decided not to because he didn’t believe in the story. His career fell apart thereafter. He was relegated to straight-to-DVD and smalltime parts. Now he’s attempting to launch a comeback by writing/directing/starring in a stage adaptation of the eponymous short story in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. In real life, Keaton was best known for his role as Batman in Batman and Batman Returns. He was offered—at that point—more money than any leading man in Hollywood history to return in Batman Forever. He didn’t believe in the screenplay and decided against it. His career stalled. A few years ago, Keaton directed and starred in The Merry Gentleman, a Christmas-themed movie about redemption for a suicidal hitman. While many believed—perhaps even Keaton too—this film would mark his return to prominence, and despite many positive reviews, it didn’t do much of anything in the box office.
Keaton has acknowledged the similarities between himself and his character, though he’s admitted that he has the least in common with Thomson than any other character he’s ever portrayed. Keaton has said that he purposely moved into semi-retirement and that he enjoys living quietly at his Montana ranch than dealing with L.A.
This also makes you wonder how much more connected he was to his characters in Clean and Sober or Pacific Heights, but that’s another story.
There is a theme of transcendence in play in Birdman. Often Thomson will levitate off the ground, flying around the city. Nobody witnesses him doing this, and we’re left to wonder the mental state of the character. The beginning and end of the film are bookended by Thomson first meditated and levitating off the ground while the end is Thomson soaring into the air, free as a bird, and apparently his daughter no witnesses what’s been happening to him all along.
His struggles are more existential than the midlife crisis it may sound like. In the play, Thomson’s character—who is as abusive as Thomson is neglectful—laments that he is invisible and blows his brains out. Thomson reveals, in a strangely comedic scene, his own attempts at suicide. He is constantly hallucinating conversations with Birdman who gives voice to Thomson’s thoughts. “How did you end up here?” Birdman laments. If there’s a major flaw with this film is that these scenes—Thomson and Birdman—aren’t given the space or significance it deserves. Birdman is about Thomson struggling to understand who he is, and Birdman is a reflection of that.
It’s that lack of relevance that Thomson feels acutely. His character in the play feels it. Perhaps Keaton has too. Thomson’s daughter delivers the most thematically prescient and brutal line: “You’re doing this because you’re scared to death—like the rest of us—that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t.”
This leads back to the most divisive scene in Birdman: the ending. It’s left open ended purposely, allowing us to fill in the shades with our own crayons. However, we’re left with rather dark colors. These are our options. I’ll go with the “happy ending” first.
1. Thomson has come out the other side of his crisis as a fuller man. The positive reviews he received from his stage stunt have given him the recognition he has so deeply missed. Sam, Thomson’s daughter (Emma Stone), doesn’t actually seem him flying literally. The flying she sees is representative of the man both of them wishes he had been in the past—happy, successful and well adjusted. He’s as popular as he was when he was Birdman.
Of course, this comes with its own sad asterisk. Comebacks don’t last forever (see Mel Gibson and John Travolta), and even the brightest stars eventually fade away. We’ve seen that happen to Thomson already. Like all stars they eventually turn into black holes.
2. This one is the rough one. It’s established at this point that Thomson is having some level of hallucinatory breakdown. It’s established that Sam, his daughter, is a recovering drug addict who is weary and fragile. Mental illness tends to run in families, and it’s likely that Thomson, having realized that his comeback, while successful, is like all things in life: temporary; as Sam said, he doesn’t matter.
Thomson decides to end his life on an acknowledged high note and throws himself out the window. When Sam returns she looks down expecting to see his body on the ground, but sees him flying instead and smiles. That’s because she cannot process the truth of what she’s seen. Her father has killed himself and she can’t handle it. She hallucinates now as he did but with one major exception: while Thomson’s hallucinations focused on the worst and darkest parts of his personality—revealing the uncomfortable truths—Sam’s hallucinations are a protective one. In her reality her father has transcended the way he wanted to. He’s successful. He’s happy. And she’s happy for him.
It also may be forgiveness. She clearly couldn’t forgive her father for his terrible parenting, and yet, when confronted with the truth of his suicide, she feels a pure empathy. In the method of his death she understands that his mistakes weren’t just a result in the flaws of his personality but of a weight so heavy that the only way to let go of it was to take his own life. Forgiveness isn’t something we decide, it simply happens to us. For Sam, this was the moment.
3. Thomson had been dead nearly the entire time and what he is experiencing is either something akin to purgatory, or something that the brain does as it’s dying. There are theories—mostly from eastern religions—that believe that as a person dies, their subconscious unfolds to reveal who we really were, putting into perspective all of our choices and why we made them. The results may not always be a positive one but it’s in the hope that when confronted with the truth we can achieve a sense of closure, and come to an understanding of who we were and why we were. In Thomson’s case he was a lousy person who wanted to be better, but never had the fortitude to do it. He was too absorbed in himself to care. He leaves behind a barely recovering daughter, a wife who is indifferent to him and a pregnant mistress whose child will grow up essentially as Sam did—without a father.
At particular points in the movie a drummer boy beats out a rhythm. Nobody seems to see him, and this plays well into the other bizarre beats of unreality we’re treated to in the film. That could be read as anything in dreams, or like any random synapse that the brain launches—they don’t always make sense." A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing." A card with this mantra appears in the corner of Thomson’s mirror, and it’s like an inoculation against negative reviews of this film as much as it is a commentary on it. These are the things happening in Thomson’s mind—they’re illusory and unexplainable in certain places, but this is what Thomson’s reality is. It’s his. His life and the way it has unfolded for him. We can rarely makes sense of the lives of others let alone our own. Hypnotically shot by Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki, we’re often meant to feel as intimate voyeurs in another person’s mind.
The key to Birdman is that Lynchian totem, the drummer boy, thumping away at the canvas, asking melodically what Thomson has been wondering about his career and his life: “What happens when the music stops?”
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