Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is one of the most technically impressive and thematically determined films of 2014. With an all-star cast and some stunning digital effects to make the film seem like it was done in one long continuous shot, Birdman is stuffed to the brim with ideas and importance. This movie doesn’t just want to make you feel something, it wants to say something about humanity and stardom and the inner lives of celebrities and the “cultural genocide” that superhero films have wrought upon us.
The main character, Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton), is a washed-up actor who once achieved the pinnacle of fame and fortune playing the superhero character Birdman. He’s now trying to jump-start his career and find critical redemption and acknowledgment with a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He’s completely broke and risking everything for this neurosis-fraught production, and he’s also hearing a voice in his head: a gravely version of his own voice as Birdman.
It adds weight to the story that Keaton was once Batman, Edward Nortan (who plays a talented but dickish actor in the film) played the Incredible Hulk, and Emma Stone, who portrays Thomson’s troubled daughter, Sam, is contemporary Spiderman’s Gwen Stacy. It wouldn’t be necessary to cast this movie with actors familiar with superhero franchises, but it does cast a knowing shadow across the entire film.
While Birdman has been praised by fans and critics alike, there is still one aspect of the movie that has left vast numbers of filmgoers utterly confused, the ending. If you’re still trying to figure out exactly what to make of the last shot of the film, you’re not alone.
On opening night of the play, Riggan uses a real gun for the final scene and shoots his nose off on stage. In the hospital, Riggan learns that the play has gotten rave reviews. and he seems (reasonably) happy about it. After Sam visits Riggan in his room, Riggan sees birds flying outside and climbs onto the window ledge. When Sam returns, he is gone; she looks out at the sky and smiles. The rest is up to the viewer. So… what exactly happened? Let’s figure it out.
Possible interpretations of the ending:
- 1. He dies on stage and it’s all a Mulholland Drive-style fantasy sequence after that.
2. It’s all real up to the point where he jumps out the window, where he falls and dies. The daughter’s joy at seeing him “free” is a fantasy sequence.
3. Same as #2 except that the daughter knows he killed himself and is still happy about it.
4. He doesn’t die but the last scene doesn’t really happen; it’s just a fantasy sequence for himself in the way that fantasizes his superpowers throughout the film.
5. He doesn’t die; he actually flies away at the end. He really has superpowers.
You can make a case for any of them (except maybe #5 which is refuted several times in the movie), but the most logical choice seems to be #2 (with #3 coming in at a strong second). Riggans is indeed dead. Why is this the most logical conclusion? Well, let’s go through it.
Number one, Riggan is crazy. This may seem obvious, but the movie encourages us, in a weird way, to think maybe Riggan isn’t crazy — to think that he really does have superpowers. If you came away thinking Riggan wasn’t crazy, you can’t really be blamed for it. Maybe you’re an optimist, or maybe you’ve seen a lot of the superhero movies that director Iñárritu criticizes repeatedly throughout the film.
Nevertheless, the fact that he doesn’t have superpowers is enforced when we see Riggan flying through the streets of New York. He arrives at the theater and runs in after landing, only to be pursued by a cabbie trying to collect his fare. It’s the only time the movie explicitly contradicts Riggan’s delusions, but the message is clear. They are delusions. He didn’t fly. He took a cab.
However, the most important part of these delusions is the fact that nobody else shares them. Throughout the film we clearly see that all of the supporting characters do not see what Riggan sees. Which brings us to the most important point of all.
After Riggan hops out of the window, Sam’s face is in the final shot, looking up in wonder, presumably watching her father soar through the sky. However, it’s clear that Riggan doesn’t really have the ability to fly and it’s also clear that Sam doesn’t share her father’s delusions. So, the fact that she indeed sees something leaves us with only two conclusions. As stated before; It’s all real up to the point where he jumps out the window, where he falls and dies. Sam’s joy at seeing him “free” is a fantasy sequence. Or, he indeed died, except that the daughter knows he killed himself and is still happy about it.
There are, of course, nuances that can be further debated. For instance, why does Riggan’s daughter smile as she looks out the window? Again, every time in the film Riggan does something “supernatural,” there’s always some natural explanation for it, but this time, when he flies away, his daughter looks up, not down. (“Down” being where Riggan would presumably be, if he did in fact jump without the actual ability to fly.) Thus, it’s not too far-fetched to think that the very last shot of the film is Iñárritu’s way of joining the metaphorical/imagined with the real. Riggan still can’t fly, nor does he actually jump out a window. The movie is just conveying that for the first time, Sam is seeing her father the way he sees himself.
One of the best things about a movie so open to interpretation is that there’s no real “solution.” And there are, of course, many ways to understand it. Imagine for a second that Riggan doesn’t die. He leaps out of that window at the end of the movie and really does soar through the skies. What would that mean?
What did you guys think of the film’s ending? Which interpretation makes the film the most rich and meaningful for you? Let us know in the comment section below.