Creating and expressing ambiguity in film is a complicated trick to perfect: how much can be left unresolved before that original intention for ambiguity becomes lost in disorganised tangle of themes and narrative threads. It’s exciting to see films that can be interpreted in different ways, but each interpretation needs to be clear and defendable. Unfortunately Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) doesn’t know what it wants to say (or fails to clearly express what it wants to say), despite all of the irrefutably enjoyable things about it. It’s so confused that it can’t even decide if it wants to use its poncey subtitle or not.
Michael Keaton is receiving a lot of praise for his role as depressed actor Riggan Thompson; this is partly because he’s really good and partly because his fall from stardom after portraying Batman in the early 90’s mirrors his character’s struggle after playing Birdman for three movies. In fact, all of the main actors are great, although some of their characters do go missing as the film’s climax approaches.
Similarly as the film progresses and more of the action moves outside of the theatre, the continuous take doesn’t have the same impact and begins to distract from the narrative. By insisting on using the trick for the whole film (bar a couple of shots at the beginning and end), it takes away any reason for doing it in the first place. It’s like handing everybody a prize for participating: everyone goes home happy, but it negates the purpose of handing out prizes in the first place.
As Riggan becomes increasingly delusional the filmmakers stumble in trying to bring out a deeper meaning from the proceedings, particularly with the film’s ending. For the ambiguous ending to work, it should be possible to read it in different ways, but each way needs to be complete and offer a full explanation. Unfortunately the ending of Birdman doesn’t offer any complete interpretations, just half understandings and confused messages. I don’t have to know exactly what happened, but I should be able to offer a full explanation of what happened, even if someone else has a different interpretation that they believe.
Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) was released in UK cinemas on 2nd January 2015. Images and trailer courtesy of Fox Searchlight.