I wanted to try and really make sense of this film that I loved so much. While there are many unknown aspects of the film, including what Alejandro G. Iñárritu actually intended everything to mean, the reason this film enticed me so is because of the analysis that is possible with a movie like this. So here’s my best shot:
“What we talk about when we talk about love.” is the through line for the entire movie. Love is fame and adoration to Riggin, so much so that clinging to the old fame of Birdman has left him with a broken relationship with his daughter and ex-wife. His daughter says “You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter.” Which is what Riggin is terrified of. So he wants the respect of a real artist, a real “actor”. He’s then given a few examples, the younger Leslie (Naomi Watts) who hopes her first big play won’t flop, the method actor Mike played by Edward Norton who can’t even get it up because he’s so into the craft it has destroyed him, and Laura (Andrea Riseborough) who is the latest in broken relationships in Riggin’s life. His daughter is attracted to the serious actor that he wishes he could be.
To me, the hard cut is when the old Riggin dies. Not literally, but figuratively. The death of his ego that wanted to be validated and loved.
In the hospital bed, he is treated with word of great success. His play is a hit, he’s a sensation. Fame has returned and is bigger than ever. His response is lukewarm at best. In his brush with death, his visions of the band playing and the characters from Grauman’s Chinese Theater who represent the blockbuster entertainment at a base level flash before his eyes before he sees the jellyfish. The same jellyfish that stung him and ruined his previous suicide attempt. This is a reminder of that, that the “quiet dignity” of death isn’t a quiet dignity at all. He was flailing like a fool trying to get the jelly fish off of him in the beach, causing an embarrassing moment out of something peaceful. The gun misses and he’s reminded of that.
The bandage, which looks like Birdman’s mask, is now on his face. Earlier in the play, his character tells a story of a man in an accident that couldn’t see through his eye holes and see his beautiful wife. When his daughter Sam brings him the flowers (something she couldn’t do in person in the beginning of the film), he laughs, because he can’t smell the flowers. The flowers represent life, and he couldn’t enjoy the life that he had right in front of him because he had the Birdman mask on all along. He holds his daughter like a child, and that coupled with his new found friendship with his ex-wife, he is now at peace.
He goes in the bathroom and sees Birdman on the toilet. He removes the mask and as he’s leaving Birdman says “Goodbye, fuck you” to Riggin. He has now let go of Birdman and goes back to his room. At this point the surreal begins again, as the sweeping score that happens during most of the flying scenes begins to play. He looks up, smiles, and begins to soar. He is now able to leave behind the old part of his ruined life and begin anew. Sam looks down, expecting to see her father splattered on the floor, but her eyes dart back and forth, indicating she can’t find him. She then looks up and smiles, because unexpectedly, her father is now soaring. She can now “look up” at her father.
He recognizes love in the end. What we talk about when we talk about love….