Birdman is the kind of movie you can see over-and-over and probably notice something different every time. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu filmed the whole thing to look like a single take, and that alone could be the subject of a lengthy study, but let's set that aside and just look at all the other things happening in the movie. These are just a few of the deep (not necessarily correct) thoughts we had watching the movie.
#1. RIGGAN IS DEAD
At the end of the movie, Riggan (Michael Keaton) opens his hospital window, climbs out and flies away. I think Riggan died, and I’m going to lay out my case for why I think that.
Step 1. Riggan Is Crazy
This may seem obvious, but the movie encourages us, in a weird way, to think maybe Riggan isn’t crazy — to think that he really does have super powers. If you came away thinking Riggan wasn’t crazy, well you can’t be blamed. Maybe you're an optimist, or maybe you've seen a lot of the superhero movies that director Iñárritu criticizes repeatedly through the film.
Anyway, just like Inception and its spinning top, Birdman gives us the clues we need to see the reality of the situation, which brings us to...
Step 2. Riggan Took a Cab
When Riggan goes flying through the streets of New York, he arrives at the theater and runs in after landing, only to be pursued by a cabbie trying to collect his fare. It’s the only time the movie explicitly contradicts Riggan’s delusions, but the message is clear. They are delusions. He didn’t fly. He took a cab.
It’s also worth noting this scene comes kind of late in the movie, and is meant to cast his previous breaks from reality in a new light. It runs contrary to Riggan’s daughter’s reaction in the movie’s final shot, but we’ll get to that.
Step 3. Birdman Is in the Bathroom
Right before Riggan climbs out the window, he goes to the bathroom to take off his bandages only to encounter Birdman sitting on the toilet. Every time we see or hear Birdman in the movie, it happens when Riggan’s reality is cracking up. He’s previously talked to Riggan during episodes when he thinks he’s using telekinesis, and when he’s about to “fly” off a rooftop. This time he starts talking to Riggan right before the actor climbs out of the hospital window and takes a flying leap.
Step 4. His Daughter Experiences a Break with Reality
The most personally tragic thing about Riggan’s suicide is that it drives Sam (Emma Stone) mad. Her face is in the final shot of the movie, looking up in wonder, presumably watching her father soar through the sky. Only it’s not real. When Sam leans out the window, she sees her dad's body splattered on the ground and it triggers a break with reality. Just like her dad, she’s started seeing things that aren’t there.
#2. RIGGAN'S DEATH WAS FORESHADOWED FOUR TIMES
Even if Riggan didn’t really die at the end, the movie is filled with hints that he’s going to die. His death was foreshadowed four times, and three of those are explicitly about suicide.
1. At the end of Riggan's play, his character shoots himself in the head.
2. While talking with his wife backstage, he reveals he was trying to kill himself the time he walked into the ocean only to flee after being stung repeatedly by jellyfish.
3. Also while he's backstage, Riggan relays a dream he had where he's on a plane with George Clooney, and the plane goes down and everyone dies. The dream isn't significant because Riggan died. It's significant because his death would be buried in the press who would undoubtedly focus on George Clooney. This actually gives him more motivation for suicide because that way he can control the timing and circumstances of his own demise.
4. When Riggan stands on top of a building and nearly jumps off before "flying" to the theater.
#3. JAKE REPRESENTS REALITY
The only character in the movie who can keep Riggan grounded is his producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis). Whenever he appears, the movie stops blurring the line between delusion and reality. His character isn’t particularly admirable, but at least he isn’t crazy. When he walks into the dressing room Riggan is trashing with his mind powers, he doesn’t see any mind powers. He just sees a crazy old man trashing his dressing room. If he’d have come back in the hospital room in the final shot, he wouldn’t have looked up in the sky in wonder like Riggan’s daughter. He would have seen the guy dead on the ground.
#4. THE DRUMMER IS A HARBINGER OF CHANGE
Jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez scored the whole movie in a feat that sounds nearly as impressive as the film’s simulated single take. But occasionally an actual drummer (played by Sanchez’s friend Nate Smith, uncredited) appears onscreen, making it seem as though the score is playing for the film’s characters as well as its audience. It’s one of many ways Iñárritu blurs the line between what’s real and what’s fantasy. But maybe the drummer’s appearances aren’t random. Maybe his appearances coincide with traumatic changes.
The drummer first appears in the theater after Riggan’s opening scene. Immediately after his appearance, a light falls on an actor’s head, taking him out of the play.
The drummer later appears on the street as Riggan and Mike Shiner are walking to the bar. In that scene, Mike tears Riggan’s whole world apart by undermining Riggan’s touching story about how he got into acting because Raymond Carver (the author of the play he’s adapting) left him a kind note about a play performance when he was a kid. Mike points out the note was written on a cocktail napkin, meaning Carver was probably drunk, throwing into question Riggan’s entire reason for getting into acting in the first place. It changes Riggan's whole perspective, and later he leaves the signed cocktail napkin in the bar after confronting the critic.
The drummer appears again backstage at the theater right before Riggan shoots himself in the face.
Each of those appearances coincides with a big change that Riggan is going to have to adapt to. We'd have to see the movie again to look for more appearances from the drummer, but these three are pretty big.
#5. BLUE IS THE DREAM COLOR
Iñárritu plays with red and yellow in Birdman, but it’s blue he’s really using. The color is his signal that something isn’t real, that he’s blending dream with reality. He almost spells it out by lighting the dream sequence in Riggan’s play in blue. Blue is also used when Riggan’s girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant. Later we learn she isn’t. The baby wasn’t real. Blue is also the color of Birdman’s costume (not real), and blue fills the screen when Riggan flies through the sky (also not real).
#6. ANOTHER WAY TO READ IT: THE EXALTED CREATOR
One of the best things about a movie so open to interpretation is that there's no real "solution." And there are, of course, many ways to understand it. Imagine for a second that Riggan doesn't die. He leaps out of that window at the end of the movie and really does soar through the skies. What would that mean?
In a movie where the director takes shots at everyone (actors, producers, critics, audiences, Twitter, etc.), maybe Iñárritu is saying the Creator stands alone in glory and righteousness. Riggan repeatedly argues that he's the one risking everything. And even if his motives and means are repeatedly drawn into question, maybe this risk combined with his act of creation (adapting Carver's short story for the stage) ennobles him. This would mean Iñárritu wants to exalt the Creator. It's his way of saying no matter how much there is to criticize, mock, or question in a Creator's work, that Creator is greater than any doing the criticizing, mocking, or questioning by the simple virtue of his/her act of creation. It would explain an awful lot about the movie.