Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Rated R

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) could possibly be Michael Keaton’s career defining role (so far). Cast perfectly as Riggan Thomson, an aging and washed up ex-action movie star who is past his prime. Riggan is desperately trying to escape his past iconic role of Birdman, a fictional character he played in three blockbuster films many years ago.

Riggan attempts his comeback by producing, writing and starring in a Broadway stage play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The story begins in the St James Theatre (filmed on location) where Riggan’s production is scarily close to opening night and riddled with problems. The film rarely leaves the location of the theatre and primarily plays out in real time as if shot with one continuously rolling camera.

Written by Alejandro G Iñárritu (who also directed), Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, Birdman is an amazing portrait study of a man under a growing amount of stress as he seeks to resurrect his career and repair his broken family.

Wrestling with mistakes from his past the film continually jumps from reality to the dark corners of Riggan’s state of mind and back again with an amazingly seamless touch (similar to Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

The fact that there are only a handful of editing cuts in the entire 119 minutes is a testament to the skill of the cast, crew, pre-production and post-production teams. The visual effects are stunning and mostly intentionally invisible (my favourite type). It is a film that is masterfully executed in a unique style which is unlikely to be repeated too often in the near future. Much like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which played out its scenes in reverse order.

The performances of all supporting cast members are excellent. Edward Norton plays the eccentric trouble-making stage actor Mike Shiner. Naomi Watts plays Lesley, Mike’s girlfriend, an unknown actress desperate for Broadway success.

In a departure from previous comedic roles Zach Galifianakis shines as Jake, Riggan’s good friend and lawyer who helps him handle the legal concerns and stresses of the production. Galifianakis is funny, but in a more understated way, allowing the writing to do the work instead of relying on his quirky comedy acting skills to get the laughs.

Andrea Riseborough is Laura, actress and girlfriend of Riggan. She craves his love and attention. Amy Ryan is Sylvia, Riggan’s ex-wife whom Riggan still loves. Emma Stone plays Riggan and Sylvia’s troubled daughter Sam who is also her father’s reluctant personal assistant. Lindsay Duncan plays the cruel theatre critic Tabitha, who is on a mission to rid Broadway of Riggan Thomson, whom she has complete contempt for.

The skill in having to create their performances in long scenes without the benefit of editing cuts would have been something to behold on set. Having to hit marks and choreograph these great performances with not only the other performers but the camera as well is both an artistic and technical achievement to which all involved should be proud.

This film really puts the movie audience right inside the St James Theatre as the camera follows characters throughout the labyrinth of corridors back of stage and then onto stage and then outside the dingy side alley or balcony as required, giving the viewer a great feel for what a stage production is like to run and how hectic it can be. I suspect those with theatre production experience will appreciate it on a different level.

The score deserves special mention. Making use of a soundtrack predominantly using drums I believe was an excellent choice and adds to the whole experience.

Alert: contains spoilers beyond this point:

Through the Narrow Gate

At the start of the film, Riggan is levitating as he meditates. Is it transcendental meditation or is it his mind playing tricks on him? Is it both? This opening image is a powerful one. As with all well made films, the director is prepping his audience with an opening shot that explains the rules of the world of the story that is about to unfold. The ticking clock of opening night is ever-present as obstacle after obstacle is placed before our lead character. He has good intentions but his plans seem to continually go pear-shaped. Attempts to reason with other characters tend to deteriorate to an argument and at one point, a fist fight. The way Riggan reacts after these confrontations is probably worthy to note. Each one results in him isolating himself, which leads to a conversation with an inner voice. A dark voice. It is his own Birdman character’s voice. It usually results in self-destructive behaviour.

For all his faults Riggan does have a few redeeming qualities. He actually has some acting ability (which he displays in many great scenes). He is passionate about his craft. Most of all, he loves his family deeply and is paying for the mistakes of his past. If there is anything that can be taken away from his family predicament it would be that we shouldn’t compromise our important relationships for our personal goals and desires.

I have some issues with the fact that some terrible behaviour ends up ultimately with him achieving most of his goals (behaviour such as shooting himself during a performance, replacing his prop gun with a real one). Though maybe he doesn’t achieve his goals? As with many other scenes, the ending is open to interpretation. Directly after Riggan shoots himself, the editing style changes. The first obvious editing cuts of the film arrive at the very end, immediately after he shoots himself. Does this signify that he has not survived his self-inflicted gun wound and that the ending scene at the hospital is not reality? That his play didn’t get the rave reviews? That his daughter has not forgiven him? That all this may be an illusion from his insanity, just before his soul rises up into the clouds?

Birdman is a film I believe is best enjoyed as a work of art. Much like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan which I found to be amazingly beautiful, yet almost pointless to try to find reason in an artistic interpretation of someone’s loss of sanity. Laugh at the comedy but with the darker parts I suggest to tread with more care. Mental health is a serious issue. Suicide is a serious issue. Violence against women yet another. These themes are unapologetically presented to the audience with the grace of a sledgehammer, yet gets away with it simply because it is a dark comedy that is of an exceptional standard. Maybe at best there is a message of hope in Birdman. That despite the worst of obstacles (external and internal), there is always a possibility that things will pan out. To keep trying. Care must be taken when using themes of suicide and self-harm in any film. I wrestle with my thoughts when it is associated with positive outcomes. It would also be wise to stay away from drugs, alcohol abuse, selfish behaviour and definitely stay away from transcendental meditation.

Content Warning: Rated R

The R rating is appropriate. There are complex themes that are a challenge to interpret yet satisfying to contemplate for a thinking audience. There is no frontal nudity but one scene has a completely naked male character seen from behind when in the theatre’s wardrobe department that is necessary for the development of the story. There is one short kissing scene between two female characters, a scene implying heterosexual intercourse about to take place between two characters, a male character forcefully imposing himself onto a female character against her wishes, a clothed male character that is aroused in public, violent tantrums where a character is alone in a room destroying objects inside, some drug and alcohol use and abuse as well as gun use. There is a scene that could be interpreted as transcendental meditation. There are also recurring mental heath, self-harm and suicide themes presented. The overall message of the film is left open to interpretation, especially the ending that many may find unsatisfying.


Miguel is a filmmaker specialising in visual effects and animation. He studied at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School (AFTRS) where he now teaches casually for their Open Program for kids and teens. He established Level Eleven Media in 2011 and has worked on a variety of short films, music videos and corporate shoots. He has a deep passion for animation and all films that make an impact! He loves the craft of storytelling from script to screen. He can be found at his local public school teaching catechism to kids on Tuesday mornings. He finds it extremely awkward referring to himself in the third-person narrative so will now stop doing so.


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  • Anne-Marie

    Your website is fabulous: eye catching, punchy, profound and sensitive.
    I will definitely be following it!
    Thanks for the great review of Birdman!

    • Miguel Zaragoza

      Thank you!