Iñárritu has been reluctant to share his interpretation of the ending and, instead, has actually championed open-ended debate over Birdman‘s finale. Speaking to the Tampa Bay Times, the director made it clear: there is not one correct way to interpret the ending:
“At the ending of the film, (it) can be interpreted as many ways as there are seats in the theater.”
For that reason, any of the theories presented above could be true (as well as others that have not been mentioned). Just like Inception or Life of Pi (read our ending explanations for Inception and Life of Pi), the takeaway isn’t a matter of what happens – it’s a matter of what it all means. Whether Riggan died on stage, on the pavement below the hospital, or flew off to act/write/direct another day, every ending comes back to a single thematic point: Riggan succeeds in earning the admiration of his fans and detractors as well as the love of his family.
To that end, the story in Birdman successfully parallels the story that served as Riggan’s inspiration: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (which you can read: HERE). Much like the characters in Raymond Carver’s short, Riggan is an unhappy and imperfect man with mistakes in his past – desperate to make sense of his life (and the consequences of his failures).
One of the most telling scenes in Iñárritu’s film, that lays out Riggan’s aspirations (and the challenges to those aspirations) occurs mid-way through the movie when Sam lambasts her father for his delusions of grandeur and self-importance:
Riggan: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is – God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written sixty years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over – and let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.
Compare that conversation to the view of love presented in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by cardiologist Melivin R. McGinnis:
“There’d been this thing out on the Interstate. Drunk kid, teenager, plowed his dad’s pickup into this camper with this old couple in it. They were up in their mid-seventies, that couple. The kid–eighteen, nineteen, something–he was DOA. Taken the steering wheel through the sternum. The old couple, they were alive, you understand. I mean, just barely. But they had everything. Multiple fractures, internal injuries, hemorrhaging, contusions, lacerations, the works, and the each of them had themselves concussions. They were in a bad way, believe me. And, of course, their age was two strikes against them. I’d say she was worse off than he was. Ruptured spleen along with everything else. Both kneecaps broken. But they’d been wearing their seatbelts and, God knows, that’s what saved them for the time being.
They were in some shape, those oldsters. By the time I got down there, the kid was dead, as I said. He was off in a corner, laid out on a gurney. I took one look at the couple and told the ER nurse to get me a neurologist and an orthopedic man and a couple of surgeons down there right away […] So we took the both of them up to the OR and worked like fuck on them for most of the night. They had these incredible reserves, those two. You see that once in awhile. So we did everything that could be done, and toward the morning we’re giving them a fifty-fifty chance, maybe less than that for her. So here they are, still alive the next morning. So, okay, we move them into the ICU, which is where they both kept plugging away at it for two weeks, hitting it better and better on all the scopes. So we transfer them out to their own room.
I dropped in to see each of them every day, sometimes twice a day if I was up doing other calls anyway. Casts and bandages, head to foot, the both of them. You know, you’ve seen it in the movies. Little eye-holes and nose-holes and mouth-holes. And she had to have her legs slung up on top of it. Well, the husband was very depressed for the longest while. Not about the accident, though. I mean, the accident was one thing, but it wasn’t everything. I’d get up to his mouth hole, you know, and he’d say no, it wasn’t the accident exactly but it was because he couldn’t see her through his eye-holes. He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? The man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.
I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn’t look at the fucking woman.”
Given his choice of subject matter (and the character he elects to play in his production), Riggan clearly aspires to Mel’s sanguine view of love – and the power it can carry. Early in the film, Riggan desperately clings to his time in the limelight as the true measure of his worth – nearly bankrupting his family in order to prove there’s more to his life than Birdman.
For that reason, Riggan’s ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), even warns him that there’s a difference between being loved and being admired:
Sylvia: You know, just because I didn’t like that ridiculous comedy you did with Goldie Hawn did not mean I did not love you. That’s what you always do. You confuse love for admiration.
Yet, as the film unfolds, Riggan begins to learn that he’s given the world more than just Birdman – and that a comic book character isn’t the sole mark of his time on Earth.
Whether he dies, lives, or flies, Riggan has learned (and in doing so, mirrored, the larger thought presented in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) that he can be and is loved. Riggan might have mistaken admiration for love in the past but he is loved – not by his fans (who admire him) but by his daughter (as well as his ex-wife).
Riggan’s greatest victory isn’t that he proves a critic wrong or succeeds in his creative endeavors, it’s that through his work on the play, he rebuilt his relationship with Sam – and helped her see him the way that he, earlier in the film, needed the world to see him: something special, somebody that still matters.
What he does after that realization is up to personal preference and interpretation but, regardless, Riggan succeeds in transcending the man that said “I’m nothing. I’m not even here” to a father that, in the eyes of his daughter, can soar into the sky.
SEE ALSO: Birdman Review
Birdman runs 119 minutes and is Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.
Have your own theory? Feel free to share it in the comments below!
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