Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is thisclose to being a masterpiece. The bulk of the film is told in a way that is stylized, witty and thoughtful all at the same time. This is a very entertaining film that has a well-told story, characters that are engaging and deep and have relatable issues, and a universal theme in which a man who is past his prime is trying to recapture lost glory. This is also a clever story and as the audience we’re never sure what’s happening in the mind of the main character and what’s real. That ambiguity helps keep the audience guessing (in a good way) and helps add depth to the story.
The film falls just short of being a masterpiece in my opinion due to the ending. I don’t mind the very ending so much. It’s a very open ended, and Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has purposefully stated that “the ending of the film, (it) can be interpreted as many ways as there are seats in the theater.” A lot of times an open ended ending like this can enhance the overall film and allow the audience members themselves to decide how it ends. That can be risky, just ask the makers of The Sopranos. Personally, I find the very end of the film to be very uplifting (no pun in intended), as Riggan (Michael Keaton) has moved beyond the insecure nature that he’s had throughout the film and has found peace in himself and with his life.
The problem that I have is with the scene that takes place just before he’s in the hospital. His play is a triumph, and yet he believes that the lead New York Times critic is going to bury his show due to a personal grudge that she has against him. The last scene in the show calls for him to shoot himself in the head and we see him put live ammunition in a real gun and then we see him shoot himself in the head and fall to the stage. The audience then erupts in thunderous applause and we see the critic leave her seat and exit the theater. We then cut to the hospital where Riggan’s best friend and attorney Jake (Zach Galifianakis) mentions that he shot off his nose. Well, he didn’t shoot off his nose. We saw him shoot himself in the side of the head. He should be dead but he’s still alive and relatively well.
Now, this ending is so ambiguous that it’s entirely possible that the last hospital scene is taking place inside his head as he’s dying. His play is a success, he’s healed his relationship with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), and he is at peace with what his life has become. That’s the problem with ambiguous endings. They can either be over-interpreted or under-interpreted. There are two sides to every coin, and while an ambiguous ending can allow the audience to fill in the blanks and see it how the want to see it or how they think they see it, the downside is that the audience can see it how they want to see it or how they think they see it. Sometimes that will work in your favor and other times it will work against you.
Initially it worked very much against the film makers from my point of view when I first saw this film. For whatever reason, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I saw it the first time. It was prior to the Oscar ceremony, and I saw it on an Academy Screener that a friend had let me borrow. I thought it was fine, but I wasn’t really blown away by it. Then when it ended the way it did, I was pissed. The film totally lost me because I wasn’t as engaged as I should have been. Watching it again this past weekend, I was fully engaged, and it was almost like I was watching a completely different film. I was more in tune with the very powerful thematic elements that were going on in the film and I was a much more willing passenger on the ride on which the film was taking me.
That’s the thing about a film like this, and the risk filmmakers run. As long as the audience is engaged in the film and are open to interpreting an ambiguous ending like that, the film will be successful. However, if the audience is not engaged, either through their own faults or because the filmmakers didn’t do enough to develop that engagement, then the film will suffer. An ambiguous ending requires voluntary participation on the part of the audience. The members of the audience have to like the fact that the ending is open to interpretation and then they have to actively work out in their brains what that interpretation will be. The first time I saw Birdman I was not engaged and was not forgiving of how the film ended.
Seeing it this past weekend, I was engaged and I was willing to participate in how I believed the story ended. Even with all of that said, however, I’m still not a huge fan of the ending. I can’t say what I would have done differently, but I think it would have been more powerful emotionally if Iñárritu had given us just a little more to hang our hats on. We’ve been following Riggan through this emotional meat grinder, and Iñárritu and Keaton did a marvelous job of getting us inside Riggan’s head and making us care deeply about what happens to him. Then Iñárritu kind of cheats us out of our emotional outlet at the end by not telling us what happened. Don’t get me wrong. The ending of Birdman was a completely valid way to end the story, and a lot of people found it very satisfying. While I appreciate it more than I did before, I was still left wanting.
My own interpretation is that Riggan dies on stage. The scene in the hospital is the last thing he thinks of as he’s dying. His nose has been rebuilt to look like a beak, and it’s allowed him to discover his true self. He has also reconciled with Sam, and once she leaves the room he can now fly to a better place. When Sam comes back to the room and sees the open window, she looks down at first, concerned. Then she looks up and sees that he’s in a better place, and she smiles, happy that he’s been able to make this transition.
Up to that point, this film is sensational. I don’t know if there is anything other than the ending about which I could be critical. Birdman has a high level of craftsmanship in all of its components. The acting is superb, and if not for a sublime performance by Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Michael Keaton almost certainly would have walked away with the Oscar for Best Actor. Edward Norton and Emma Stone were also nominated for their performances, and they both took their acting to another level. I’ve been a fan of Emma Stone since I saw her in Crazy Stupid Love. I enjoyed her spunk and fun attitude. I enjoyed her performance even more in The Help as she took her game into material that had more gravitas, and her part in Birdman showed that she is an actress of substantial range and will likely be a part of our popular culture for at least the next couple of decades.
As far as Ed Norton, his acting chops were well established long before he performed in this film, but there is one scene in particular that really shows how great he is. Just after he’s been hired to replace an actor who was (accidentally?) injured by a falling light, he and Riggan are rehearsing the pivotal scene and Mike (Norton) puts all of his emotion and guts into the reading. When the scene ends, he stops abruptly and gives Riggan a look as though to say, “What do you think? Not bad, huh?” The acting and the timing are top notch and do so much to add to the entertainment value of the story.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about the cinematography and the editing. Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki took home the Oscar for his cinematography and the editing by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione is terribly under rated. This film takes place in what looks like one long take, as the camera follows the characters through the labyrinthine hallways of the theater, into their dressing rooms, onto the streets, into local bars and shops. There are several cuts, but most of them are done so seamlessly, we can’t see where they are and it just looks like the takes go on and on. What’s great about the way it’s shot and edited and that it’s frenetic. It creates an uneasy feeling in the audience because we’re used to seeing more edits. We’re used to a more mainstream style of film making than Birdman presented to us. It also gives the film a Broadway-esque feeling since the film is about putting on a play, and there is obviously no editing in a play, so we watch as the action and drama unfold around us in an organic and real-life way. It’s brilliant film making.
The strength of Birdman in my opinion is in its storytelling. This is a remarkably well-told story. We are instantly given access to the inside of Riggan’s mind. He’s a perfectly designed character who has difficult internal issues as well as a challenging external problem. We’re not sure if he really has super powers or of these events are just happening in his mind. But thematically, this is a strong film about a man trying with all of his might to relight the fire in his soul that was extinguished a long time ago. He is a man who was once on top of the world, and now he can’t even get respect from his own daughter. He’s a has-been who has surrounded himself with never-will-be’s and even his ex-wife looks at him with pity. His whole story is encapsulated in a scene where he accidentally gets shut outside the stage door in nothing but his underwear. He then has to walk around through Times Square to get in to the front door of the theater. Just like the dream that many people have had about showing up at work in just their underwear or naked, he walks the street, and people recognize him as Birdman, but no one seems to care that he’s just in his underwear. However, Riggan has a look of terrible embarrassment and discomfort. That dream is characterized by psychologists as showing feelings of anxiety and powerlessness. This external condition reflects the internal issues that Riggan is having.
The script itself is also very well written from a standpoint of dramatic structure. It hits all of the necessary beats, and when the critic tells Riggan that she’s going to destroy his show by giving him a terrible review because she personally doesn’t like him, we don’t see any way for Riggan to accomplish his goals. He needs the show to be a success to show the world that he’s still relevant, but he needs to feel relevant himself as well. Now before he even has a chance to do that, this person who has all of the power is threatening to take it away from him. He won’t be able to re-establish his career. He won’t be able to gain the respect of his daughter. His best days will be behind him and they will stay there. This is the essence of drama, and this is a script you should know if you’re an aspiring screenwriter trying to create drama in your script.
Did the Academy get it right?
It’s interesting because going into this weekend my favorite film of the year was Whiplash. I also preferred American Sniper and The Imitation Game to Birdman before re-watching it this weekend, and I must say that my mind has been changed. I still love those films very much, but Birdman is much closer to being a masterpiece than are those films, as great as they are. This was another very tough year, and many of the films nominated could have won in other years. I especially loved the tension and the drama of American Sniper and Bradley Cooper’s performance was spectacular. Boyhood was a film that generated a lot of buzz. I saw it and liked it, but to me it’s more of a work of art than a narrative film. I applaud Richard Linklater and all of the actors for taking on the herculean effort of making this film over the course of 11 years, and the end product is worth seeing for its artistic value, but it wasn’t the best film of the year. I enjoyed Selma and the aforementioned The Theory of Everything, but they were a notch below the top three. Actually, I should say the top four, because I also loved The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson is hit or miss for me, but his last two films have been by far his two best films. Although I preferred 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom to The Grand Budapest Hotel the latter was one of my top 5 favorite films of 2014, and Ralph Fiennes gave yet another stellar performance, yet again showing that he’s one of the great actors of his generation. However, Birdman was the winner for 2014, and it was it’s hard to argue against it being the best film of the year.