Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Final Rating: 9.6/10

Alejandro González Iñárritu has already broken ground as being a highly successful Mexican director who has no doubt made his country proud. You have Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful: All are multi-plotted observations of life. Iñárritu is good at achieving a heightened sense of sympathy with his heavy films, and he has finally released the achieved Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): His greatest tragedy to date. You read all of the articles right; This is a black comedy. However, to simply consider Birdman to be a movie of hilarity is missing the entire point of why Birdman is such a strong story. To observe self deprecation in such a different way is empowering. We ourselves feel better after watching Birdman not because our lives are any better but because we can identify with many of the disasters in this film. Riggan Thomson is an actor-turned-theater-director, yes, but you will notice that many of his issues are as similar as the questions you often face. He will ask what it’s all about, if he is worth it and what he truly means as a being. Birdman is a cry for help disguised in its best superhero costume to fight off the demons of the world; It is the child that was forced to grow up and never wanted to.

Michael Keaton is back and better than ever. I have not been paid to state this. It is the honest truth. Never will you have seen Keaton feel so damaged and tortured than you will with his role as the middle aged joke Thomson. He has so much experience to offer, and yet people still laugh at him. He tries his very best, but it matters to no one when they only see him as a one time success. Keaton is funny enough that his seriousness is never a part of the hilarity. We will chuckle at his misfortunes and then feel awful about it moments later when we see his ambitions get crushed within the reflection of his eyes.

 He is mirrored by Edward Norton’s character Mike Shiner, who is a beloved actor of whom is brought in to save the day when a performer in Thomson’s play suffers an on-set injury. Norton is relentless and unpredictable as the pompous actor who takes many risks to make the play suddenly his own. The tension between these two is authentic because the battle is one that many face in the film industry. The ones who try to tell a tale their entire lives have to compete with those who feel entitled and as if they know how the game works. Who is more deserving of complete control: The passionate underdog or the successful celebrity? These characters mimic the same troubles both actors have faced in real life as well in a familiar way that Mickey Rourke published his life on screen in The Wrestler. Keaton’s character resembles a man striving to be separated from his blockbuster past (think Batman), and Norton tries to prove that his bossy nature is for good reason (recall the fiasco behind movies like American History X). 

The highly admirable cast is made up of both comic and tragic talents: Zack Galifianakis (as Thomson’s producer and friend), Naomi Watts (as an actress and the main link to Shiner), Emma Stone (as Thomson’s troubled daughter), Andrea Risenborough (as Thomson’s girlfriend) and Amy Ryan (as Thomson’s ex wife). Everyone is terrific, and even a part of this well compiled cast (Keaton, Norton, Stone and Watts) may get awards recognition (or even the coveted win). The timing is on point, the delivery is hyper realistic, and the ability to turn from charming to depressing in a millisecond is impossible to ignore.

A quality of the movie that will surely be noticed quickly is the fact that it essentially resembles one long take. This is just another day in the life of the camera wizard Emmanuel Lubezki (who has easily made himself one of the greatest cinematographers of all time at this point), but this is an absolute triumph when he is paired with Iñárritu’s witt. The long take makes Birdman feel like a play, especially when the story takes place on different days and sometimes in Thomson’s mind. You can almost hear the footsteps of people running around to be in place for when the camera hits their mark, even though you are aware that this “single take” is just the product of fantastic editing and directing. This is a play that failed to be one, and had to resort to being a movie: It’s Thomson’s worst nightmare. The surreal moments will catch you by surprise and the real moments will seem as though you are intruding on one’s private life. Birdman’s constant shot is difficult to watch for most of its duration because you will feel evil ripping apart one’s life so heavily.

That’s what Birdman wants. It shows the negative face of social media, success, popularity and even reviewing (where people, like yours truly, are shown to have the capabilities of Lucifer himself). Birdman is a comedy but it is secretly a commentary. It greatly resembles the Scorsese classic Taxi Driver with its statements of New York life through the minds of sick anti heros. Taxi Driver has the obviously ill Travis Bickle taking on the titular role of an everyday working man, and Birdman has Thomson trying to fight against the reality that he is too far gone within his wishes and he will never be separated from his cape-clad role. 


Birdman ends similarly to Taxi Driver in a way that you truly want to believe what has happened, but you know well enough that it may very well be the dreams of a dying man


The movie has two different titles. Birdman is Thomson’s claim to fame, and it is the title most will use when describing this movie. That’s a shame because the latter portion in parenthesis, (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a glorifying moment where Thomson finally feels successful in life. We will never resort to that name. It’s long, awkward and weird to describe. Thomson’s happiest moment in his entire life is an effort for us.

 We’ll stick to calling the movie Birdman; It’s easier and it carries an identity with it. That’s the harshest reality of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): Everything it is saying about Thomson’s fears is absolutely true. There are many moments in this film that speak too greatly about the film industry and the struggling art of the auteur trying to make it big. It plays like a Shakespearean piece in such a sense that we witness Thomson’s burdens through relations, competitions, demons and universalization. He is one man but he is us all. We mock him but we pity ourselves. He will always be a superhero not because of his successful trilogy but because he is one of the few putting himself on the line. It’s up to you to decide whether or not it’s worth it in the film’s universe, but in ours Birdman is a stroke of wonder. Iñárritu has crafted his biggest success with Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which on paper seems like a bizarre story but reveals itself to be not just one of the most relatable films this year but also the weirdest candidate with considerable strength for this year’s Best Picture.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.