“Am I the only one who cares about the truth?”
Shouted by Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner, these words feel simultaneously like a battle cry and a biting satire for Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” It is obsessed with finding a truth and yet realizes that a universal one may not exist. It pulls reality out from under us and yet grounds us in some of the most relatable, human characters in years. “Birdman” is a film full of dichotomy and ambiguity. It is also a masterpiece.
The basic plot of “Birdman” is rather straightforward: Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor famous for the “Birdman” superhero franchise, is attempting to bring his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” to Broadway. Starring in the production with Lesley (Naomi Watts), an actress new to Broadway, and his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), Riggan is forced to deal with an almost perennial set of problems. Down one of their lead actors, Thomson and his producer (Zach Galifianakis) eventually find Norton’s Mike, a critically lauded actor who is also Lesley’s boyfriend. As the production nears previews and then opening night, Riggan deals with contemptuous critics like Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) and attempts to salvage his relationship with his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who is working as an assistant on the show.
But within this story lies a profoundly real and at times surreal darkness. Shiner, a vain, pretentious egotist, is only able to be sexually stimulated on stage. Lesley struggles with her own insecurities, both with and without Shiner, still unsure of her place on the stage. Sam, a recovering addict, relapses, using substances to distance herself from the world around her. Most importantly, Riggan’s sanity throughout the film is tentative at best, as a gruff “Birdman” voice threatens to dominate him and his creative process, continually convincing him to go back to those soulless sequels. And as this voice grows louder and louder, the film grows increasingly surreal and bizarre. It loads up on the fantastic and the impossible, from Riggan’s continuous display of super-powers (flight, most notably) to the eventual collapse of reality.
“Birdman” is strange. But this very strangeness makes Iñárritu’s characters infinitely more human. “Birdman” opens with Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment,” which asks, “And what did you want?” and then answers, “To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” This declaration, written as Carver’s epitaph, is essential to understanding these characters’ existences. All of them, whether knowingly or unknowingly, rage against the impersonality of the modern world. They want to feel themselves exist, even if just for a brief moment.
Each of the odd character moments in this film echo Carver’s final words. Shiner’s attempt to have sex onstage and his offstage pretension (ranging from a rage-filled speech when his drink is filled with water to an underwear-clad fight with Riggan) speak to his vain search for the “truth”; he only feels like a person when inhabiting another’s skin. Sam masks her own fears with substance and judgment, sitting over the roof of the theater, looking out at the people under her.
But this is Riggan’s film, and his search for meaning is the one that we latch on to. When the film throws an action sequence into his reality and our plane of sight, we do not feel exhilarated. This thrill is empty. Riggan wants to be beloved, but he wants to be beloved for the right reasons. He does not want to be a brief thrill. He wants to leave a mark.
All of this works because of the strength of the writing. The script, written by Iñárritu, along with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo, is clearly critical of the modern blockbuster, but that is hardly the film’s main concern. Riggan and the world around him make comments on the superhero film, but they are always grounded in a real, philosophical world. The film rages against modern existence. Each of these characters wants to matter. The superhero film is not necessarily the cause of Riggans’s irrelevance; being a critic is not necessarily the cause of Tabitha’s ego. Instead, they are the symptoms.
Ultimately, it is the mystery of this film that makes it so worthwhile. It is a film that never loses itself. In the midst of this real/surreal dichotomy, it never loses sight of its characters or of its world. Indeed, “Birdman” forces us to contend with our own answers to life’s big questions: What makes “truth?” What does it mean to matter? How do we matter? What does it mean to even exist? To create a film that attempts to answer those questions is bold. But to acknowledge that there might not even be an inherent answer is something else entirely.
To praise only the writing, however, would be to diminish the strength of the performances. Michael Keaton, perhaps delivering a loosely autobiographical performance, gives Riggan a humanity and a pain that is instantly engaging. Even in his most humorous moments, such as when Riggin rushes through Times Square in nothing but his underwear, Keaton portrays him with an intense, beautiful ennui. Edward Norton also seems to be in self-parody mode, his clever, witty self-righteousness dominating the frame. Emma Stone gives Sam a sense of distance while never feeling like a cliché. It is not distance for distance’s sake: it is a distance built like a fortress around a character for whom the world has presented nothing but abandonment.
The visuals echo the film’s ambiguity and fluidity. Iñárritu constructs the film in what seems to be one long take, the camera never cutting but rather tracking and panning across Riggin’s New York. A scene can take place in the theater’s dressing room, track and tilt away from the characters, and end up onstage hours later. Iñárritu’s camerawork presents a world constantly in flux, moving around these characters rather than necessarily with them. There are moments in which the camera movement is motivated by the character’s movement, but there are just as many times that it moves on its own.
There are few films as fascinating as “Birdman.” It is big, it is bold, and it is mysterious, but it is human at its very core. Gorgeous and dark, Iñárritu’s world forces us to delve with into the very essences of our existences. Carver got what he wanted from this life. Riggan may get that, but at a terrible cost. And thus is life in “Birdman”: cruel, perplexing, and beautiful.