After a tumultuous pre-production, Riggan’s (Michael Keaton) directorial debut is finally ready for opening night on Broadway. The theater seats are filled, but nothing is going according to plan. In the play’s climax, Riggan’s character pulls out a gun and shoots himself in the head. But as we quickly realize, Riggan has swapped out the prop gun for a real one, attempting to kill both himself and his character. He receives a standing ovation. While recovering in the hospital, critic who previously told him he was destined to fail pays him a visit. She reveres him now, telling him that his suicide attempt is what “American theater needed.”
The climax and falling action of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (dir. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2014) scathingly critiques theatrical realism and the expectations of modern audiences. Riggan faces constant skepticism for taking on the role of director and lead actor in the play “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”; no one believes he is anything more than “Birdman”, the superhero he portrayed decades earlier. He wrestles internally with thisa hallucination of Birdman throughout the film who tells him to give up. Ultimately, the doubt he faces is what pushes him to attempt suicide on stage. In a disturbing twist, this moment of self-destruction is what earns the play its success.
Riggan’s suicide attempt and the subsequent praise he receives is an exaggerated example that satirizes the lengths to which performers will strive to appease critics.Birdman makes many references to the ways in which the entertainment industry has evolved to the point where audiences and critics are no longer easily impressed. Amidst the competitive overexposure of media, performers feel a desperation to get ahead. Riggan expresses this desperation on a deeper level as he places the value of his life entirely on his ability to produce a “meaningful” and well-received performance. When he struggles to accomplish this, he feels utterly defeated.
The film’sgives depth to the discussion of both theatrical realism and contemporary criticism. Birdman is famously shot in a way that simulates a single continuous shot. In doing so, Riggan is never afforded the luxury of being off camera, creating a raw atmosphere as he struggles with his anxiety and deteriorating mental state. In another layer of metatextuality, many comparisons have been drawn between actors Michael Keaton and Ed Norton and their characters, although Iñárritu refutes this, claiming it as a coincidence. Nonetheless, one can’t help but notice the similarities. Birdman consequently uses its meta nature to see how the story reflects reality, even as we remain engrossed in the story. Through this balance the statements made on theater and the role of the critic become clearer and more effective.