Deliriously funny and poignant, Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s 2014 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), gradually treats us with small doses of wisdom drugs as it reaches a crescendo of lucid madness, before administering a treatment for life’s meaninglessness.
How does a man, on the threshold of madness, between his long gone, careless youth and his dreaded autumn years, solve a grave existential crisis caused by his own poor choices? Obviously, he turns against himself, as Birdman‘s Riggan Thomson does. But as he knows to be the only one capable of extracting himself from the black hole of self-contempt, our (literally!) hero also understands that redemption as the cure for his malaise can only work with the involvement of the people who hurt, and have been hurt by, Riggan. Thus, he embarks on an involuntarily last hurrah journey…
As forgotten actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) – mainly known for his past roles as superhero Birdman – wants to be taken seriously, he decides to stage a play on Broadway, based on Raymond Carver’s story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. When one of his actors is ‘accidentally’ injured, Riggan gets prima-donna, method actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to play the part, alongside himself, his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Mike’s love fling, Lesley (Naomi Watts). As one preview after the other is troublesome, Riggan thinks of firing Mike (the source of all problems), but the play’s producer – and Thomson’s lawyer and best friend – Jake (Zach Galifianakis) advises against it. Mike’s misconduct is actually attracting the attention of public and critics.
As tension is building to a crescendo towards the opening night, Riggan seems to be descending into hallucinatory madness. The character of Birdman, who for a while has been trying to convince him to make another superhero movie, instead of this pretentious play, now appear more often than ever. Riggan worries about his daughter, recovering drug-addict Sam (Emma Stone) and feels annoyed by his girlfriend’s ‘pregnancy.’ Only his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) seems to inspire calm in himself. However, his sense of guilt towards the three women is unbearable. On the opening night, Riggan replaces the prop gun, used by his character to commit suicide, with a real one. He shoots himself in the head, but instead of dying, he blows his nose off. In hospital, as Sam is visiting him, Riggan steps out of the window and disappears.
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Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) has been made to look like a single and extended shot, as to give form to Riggan Thomson’s stream of consciousness. Like the mind of a man who is in anxiety mode, speeding up his thought processes as if he only had few weeks to live, we follow the camera through the theater’s corridors as if on an escape route. The fact that the escaping is done with the help of Michael Keaton – who even though was the best Batman of the old era (before the crusader had been reinvented under a much darker shade) certainly needed some reinvention – is indeed fitting and poignant.
The film goes deep inside Thomson’s psyche to search for the flaws that brought him at this specific moment in life, where everything he has done and everyone he has met are a total disappointment to him. Through his role in the franchising superhero movies, Riggan has lived in people’s collective consciousness for so long that he started believing the myth that has been created behind his persona. Once rich, famous and all-too-powerful, he has now almost forgotten who he really is. It is such an arc has made Riggan Thomson utterly and completely disillusioned with life – full of contempt for every person he knows, but especially for himself.
As every idiosyncratic trait belonging to this wonderfully flawed character is pulled up to the fore, Thomson is surrounded by equally well-rounded characters, especially Norton’s Mike Shiner, who can be seen either as Riggan’s main rival and opponent or as his main inspiration – the one brave enough to explore his deep emotions to their fullest. The incredible ensemble cast seems indeed inspired in their performances… Naomi Watts is great as the good soul, fragile actress; as is Emma Stone, the unbalanced youth; Zach Galifianakis, the opportunistic friend; and Andrea Riseborough as the insecure girlfriend. However, it is Amy Ryan (the only one not involved in the play) who seems to be at peace with herself.
Notice how each of these individual interactions between Riggan and the other characters reveal a different facet of his personality. It is through them that we discover the real Riggan Thomson, who proves to be an insecure actor, a selfish friend, the non-existent lover/partner and the former absent father. However, the unexpected poignant outcome in Riggan’s story is the benefit ripped by Sam. He puts on the play as a redemption for his career, when in fact it is his child who ends up being redeemed. By the time he has stepped outside of his hospital window, the one significant act of his life is to have made possible for her to be and to act as a normal, ‘take-love-for-granted’ daughter. In the end, Sam is once again capable of loving unreservedly.
The depth of the film’s themes and the approach its director takes to tell the tale lifts Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) above your average Oscar winner and transforms the movie into a truly modern classic.