By Gregory J. M. Kasunich
[Please note, the following article is a look at the final scene of BIRDMAN, it will contain SPOILERS.]
Shortly after the credits rolled and the lights came up and the combination exhilaration/exhaustion wore off on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s BIRDMAN, the question everyone seemed to be asking themselves, and each other was, “What is the deal with Emma Stones final gaze upwards into the heavens after Riggan, her father, the once titular Birdman, jumps through the window?”
Yesterday, David Chen, of the fantastic site Slashfilm, posted an article called Let’s Talk About the Ending of ‘Birdman’ where he examines the final scene of the film. The article contains a nice lead up and exploration of the scene. Since he does a great job of setting up the scene and making his case, I won’t repeat what he wrote. That being said, with regards to the final moments of the picture, he had this to say:
“Thus, I posit that the very last shot of the film is Innaritu’s way of joining the metaphorical/imagined with the real. Riggan still can’t fly, nor does he actually jump out a window in that last scene. The movie is just conveying that for the first time, Sam is seeing her father the way he sees himself.”
It’s a great article and it worth a read, but after seeing the film [full disclosure: unlike Scott Tobias of The Dissolve, I loved it] I’ve had some time to think about it, the ending in particular and I figured I would weigh in here with my interpretation of the final, and seemingly divisive, scene of BIRDMAN.
Since so much has already been written about this picture I’ll cut to the case: I believe that Riggan’s life, and career, ends abruptly on stage after he fires a bullet (from an almost literal Chekhov’s gun) into his skull. Therefore, what this means is that the final scene, as Riggan astonishingly, miraculously, unbelievably awakes in a hospital bed, actually takes place in a heaven-like afterlife where Riggan finally achieves a soupçon of all that yearned for in the penultimate days of his tortured existence.
First, let’s look at the cinematic language employed by Alejandro González Iñárritu to hint at this conclusion at least in terms of editorial and photographic continuity. Prior to Riggan’s self inflicted gunshot wound the film is presented in one, seemingly continuous, take planting the audience firmly in Riggan’s headspace and subjective perspective. This is Riggan’s story, which is reinforced by the fact that, although the camera does wander away from Riggan, from time to time, in order to train its unrelenting eye on other members of the ensamble, it is the narration and hallucinogenic/telepathic manifestations only inside of Riggan’s head to which the audience is granted narrative access. The camera never cuts away from this continuous take, that is, until Riggan fires the gun and drops to the stage, only then does the film waver and cut, multiple times, to a fever dream of images, and ultimately to a tilt skyward towards the light.
A bit on the nose? Maybe, maybe not. Speaking of noses, when Riggan does awake in the impossible hospital his face is now covered in gauze which strikingly resembles the cowl of his alter ego Birdman. He is informed, by what may be his only friend and exasperated lawyer, Jake, that he survived the ordeal due to the fact that when Riggan fired the gun he had missed his head and instead just blasted off his nose, and that this, in fact, is a good thing.
During the film he twice expresses concern over being overshadowed on the front page of the newspaper. First after lamenting the fact that if he had perished during a flight he shared with George Clooney, it would have been Clooney’s face on the front page not his. And again, after he is upstaged by Edward Norton, it is Norton’s face printed on the front page of the paper, not Riggan’s regardless of the fact that it was Riggan’s idea, investment, etc. But now, in the hospital room, Jake shows him the newspaper, its font page plastered with Riggan. The newpaper itself containing even more incredible news. The review that was promised to end his career, and perhaps another reason he killed himself, never materializes, instead he receives an incredible review validating his choices, applauding his bravery on stage, not his cowardly exit from life. There’s more. His ex-wife, whom he still loves, is there by his bedside. Earlier we see him regretting cheating on her so much so that he attempts suicide, another hint that Riggan is all to ready to kill himself when he can’t emotionally handle the consequences of his choices. Also, let’s not forget to mention the play is a hit, the television spits images of people from all over praying for him and lighting candles, his celebrity restored, his money troubles over, all stacked together it sounds absurd, and it is, unless you look at it as if this is a version of Riggan’s nirvana.
In his final moments, alone in the room, he pulls of the bandages and looks at his new face while Birdman, in full spandex, watches from the toilet. This suggests that perhaps, even though Birdman will always be a part of him, a part of his legacy and identity, that in death Riggan is able to remove the mask, to assume a new face, a new identity, and demote Birdman, the public version of him anyway, to the crapper. Riggan then leaves the bathroom, steps through the window of his hospital room (a metaphor for purgatory if there ever was one) and leaps.
Which brings us to Sam, his daughter, who enters the room, goes to the window, first looks down, then up as a strange smile creeps across her face. Earlier, Sam blasts Riggan with one of the more scathing speeches in the film. She runs her father straight through with a barrage of pellets seething with every emotion she has felt for her father; anger, disgust, exasperation, and honesty. But now, she arrives with flowers that are anything but the not-so-passively-aggressively delivered roses (a flower which Riggan hates) she gives him earlier in the film, only this time he smell them (due to the nose he shot off to spite his aging face.) They share a tender moment, things are now better than they have ever been in the past. After Sam comes back into the room and looks out the window I believe she does see her father, unbound by his earthy burdens, free to fly as he always imagined he could.
In this way Riggan goes out completely on his own terms. Yes, maybe this was not the ideal ending to his story, but it surely is one fitting of his character.