Birdman: A Father and Daughter's Final Act

Birdman is a fast-paced drama that cleverly uses panning and tracking shots to tell a compelling story about a man ready to meet his dead end. It's probably a story common in Hollywood - the real Hollywood - not the fictional one, although Birdman would have you doubting both. The film starts with the protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), levitating a few feet from the floor like a superhero in deep meditation. But Riggan isn't a superhero anymore. Nor can he levitate from the floor. He's just an ordinary man who can sit on his behind because the levitation is really a plot device called magical realism, the act of having a fantasy superimposed on the real world. It's also the reason why Birdman's ending is so hard to figure out. Riggan isn't the only one doing the fantasizing.

Birdman plays a big role in Riggan's life. But the quest to find his true self often seems hindered by the superhero of the past. This character he played so swimmingly years has been replaced by an tired old man still looking for happiness in all the wrong places. One of those wrong places is in Broadway theater with his "brilliant" adaptation of  Raymond Carver's story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He's poured all his money into it including the home that was to be left supposed to his beloved, but extremely neglected daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). But Sam, it turns out, isn't that different from her dad. They're both come to live in their own fantasy lands.

Plot Device: First Person Magical Realism

Alejandro G. Iñárritu's use of realism versus fantasy in Birdman allows us a bird's eye view (yikes) of Riggan's inner life. He's an unhappy man (always has been despite being a top superhero celebrity) with many failed and failing relationships. His Broadway production is a mess. It gets even worse when Riggan fires an actor (or rather deliberately drops equipment on him to get him out of the way) and hires another one, Mike (Edward Norton), with more experience and clout in the theater business. But that's not important when understanding Birdman's ending. What's important to know is that Iñárritu's use of magical realism is in the first-person narration of Riggan. In other word's, it's a figment of the old man's imagination.

Sam's Fate Tied into Dad's

His daughter, Sam, suffers the same fate. Without a loving Mom and Dad to appreciate her, she cannot let herself in the world either. She can't really enjoy herself. She can't be easy on herself. She is a woman who suffers with extreme neglect and therefore cannot find her presence in the world, just like dad. Her preferences, beliefs and values are rendered invalid or highly questioned to the point he cannot just let herself be. 

Sam's inner world is revealed during her game play with the actor, Mike. The Truth or Dare game is her way to lure Mike into letting her come into the world. But Mike doesn't allow for it. He insists on giving her a dare despite Sam's insistence that he ask her for a truth. Mike doesn't care for her truth. He too has been neglected for a lifetime and allowing someone to be authentic makes him uneasy. He'd rather settle for the truth in art - in other people - because it's safer. No one has ever validated him, so he doesn't know how to do it for himself or others.

The Birdman Ending

Which brings us to the ending of the movie. The real gun replaces the fake one during the final scene of the show. It's the only way to get a good review from a Broadway theater critic who beliefs Riggan should be kicked out of the art scene. But theater demands authenticity. Riggan has none he feels comfortable sharing so he resorts to shooting off his nose as a desperate attempt to make it real as possible. When he gets up in the morning, his Birdman inner persona goes quiet. Riggan doesn't need him anymore because this desperate act propelled into the final state of self-annihilation. Looking at his nose in the mirror, the swelling has made it look conspicuously like a Birdman nose. Both the inner demon and man have become one.

Riggan walks over to the window and jumps. It's not that far-fetched since he's jumped before in previous scenes only to land on his imaginary legs before coming back to stand on his real ones. The magical realism device. But this time, after seeing his big, bird nose, there's no flight of fancy. We don't see him fly away like before. We only see his daughter Sam, who smiles at the sight of seeing dad fly. This act, however, doesn't imply that he is actually flying. No, back to plot devices. Remember that Iñárritu used first-person magical realism, meaning it was a figment of Riggan's imagination. However, in storyland, it's okay to have two narratives in one story. That means, we can switch to first-person narrative magical realism on Sam's side.

That's right. At the end of Birdman, Sam becomes just as delusion as her dad and sees him fly.

This psychosis indicates how her extreme neglect has fostered yet another dysfunctional fantasy land to conceal the brutal pain from her real world. Riggan didn't land on his feet, but his daughter thinks so because she has become just as delusional. Like father like daughter. The flight of unreality, at the end of the movie, is Sam's now, not Riggan's.

Plot Device Says it All

This interpretation is perhaps the most plausible as it aligns better with the themes of the film and stay true to the writer's use of fantasy and realism in the film. It is highly unlikely that Sam truly sees Riggan fly as that would drastically alter the balance of fantasy and realism and most likely put off audience members who would essentially have no choice but to dismiss the film as a kind of dream.

Birdman is an interesting film that portrays the hopes of a desperately lonely man disconnected more from himself than the world around him. Alejandro G. Iñárritu's directing keeps the story paced a high, but even speed and interspersed with long tracking shots and colour saturated scenes that delight the mind and senses. Michael Keaton's performance as an old washed superhero actor brings a common challenge among celebrity, that being, how to maintain one's true humanity in the face of an imposing fictional reality both on and off screen.

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