Skip Dine Young Ph.D.

Movies and the Mind

Playing with Psychosis in 'Birdman'

Is Michael Keaton's alter-ego crazy or what?

Posted Nov 25, 2014

Michael Keaton in Birdman

The opening shot of Birdman (brilliantly directed by Alejandro Inarritu) features Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) sitting yoga-style in his tightie-whities all alone in a grungy dressing room. That image itself might be enough to grab the audience’s attention, but the scene becomes truly remarkable when we realize that he is floating several feet above the ground.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead]

The film soon reveals more plot context. Riggan is a former movie star, most famous for a trilogy of super-hero films playing "Birdman." Desperate for a comeback and to be taken seriously, he has sunk his entire savings into an NYC stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.” Riggan is the writer, director and star. The production is still in rehearsals, but it appears doomed until a particularly inept actor is accidently (?) injured by a falling sand bag. He is replaced by a difficult but dazzling theater star (Edward Norton) who gives the production some much needed respectability. The set-up is perfect for a dark satire of actors and the movie business, heightened by the meta-level reality that Michael Keaton was himself a star of the enormously popular Batman series.

Birdman proceeds break-neck into this Sunset Boulevard-like world, introducing a variety of troubled but intriguing characters like Riggan’s recovering-addict daughter (Emma Stone), the harried production manager (Zach Galifianakis) and the theater star’s long-suffering girlfriend (Naomi Watts). The story is slightly preposterous but just realistic enough to be almost believable in light of the well-documented antics of Hollywood actors and many improbable real-life come-backs by former stars.

Yet the audience is periodically pulled out of the satire and reminded of the opening scene by moments which suggest that Riggan has telekinetic super-powers (moving coffee cups with his mind). In between various shenanigans involving the teetering production and the amorous adventures of the players, we also witness Riggan having conversations with an off-screen voice telling him threateningly he should abandon theater and go back to Hollywood to make Birdman IV. The effect of all this can be a disconcerting. Touches of “magical realism” are not new to most movie-goers these days, but they are usually used in quirky comedy/dramas like Midnight in Paris or Amelie, not menacing satires.

One obvious interpretation of these supernatural elements is that they are simply a manifestation of Riggan’s fragile psyche. The scenes seem to be inviting the audience into the hallucinations and delusions of a psychotic individual, like in Black Swan or the beginning of A Beautiful Mind (where the audience participates in John Nash’s visions of being part of an international espionage plot). These films do an outstanding job of tricking the audience into perceiving and believing a series of events that look just as real as anything else in the movie yet prove to be not real at all. This is a way that film can be a learning tool for helping non-psychotic people understand how realistic hallucinations seem to people when they are in the midst of psychosis. Birdman teases the audience to view Riggan’s as “crazy” by making the bizarre events occur only when the character is alone and avoiding any clear, objective evidence that he truly does have exceptional abilities.

The last shot of Birdman turns everything on its head however. Without completing giving it away, I’ll just say that the audience is finally given a substantial clue that maybe Riggan does have super-powers after all. The only cinematic parallel I can think of is the ending of Being There, in which a simple gardener, Chauncey (Peter Sellers), who at the center of a media blitz, walks away from a funeral and . . . . [I won’t spoil that one either, but let’s just say he pulls off something of a miracle]. I think Chauncey’s impact on the audience is very different than Riggan’s however. Chauncey is highly sympathetic. One might recognize his expressions as inane and mock the pop culture that makes him into a guru, but he is still a gentle, sweet-natured individual. So when the final scene of Being There asks us to reevaluate all of our previous interpretations, the only threat is that we might find something profound in what we had previously dismissed as simple-minded. That’s disorienting, but not disturbing.

Contemplating Riggan as a true super-hero is different because he’s not a very sympathetic character. In fact, we mostly see him as a self-centered jerk who lets down just about everyone around him. A drunken confrontation between him and a bitter theater critic packs a wallop because the audience knows enough about Riggan to realize there is a great deal of truth in the critic’s character evisceration, no matter how haughty and mean-spirited she may be. The movie does provide enough brief glimpses of Riggan’s potential for decency that we may not actually enjoy his head long descent into self-destruction, but can we accept this guy as a hero? Similarly, we may have some compassion for him as mentally ill (depression?, emerging schizophrenia?, substance abuse?, bipolar?—it’s hard to say), but is this the guy who deserves to have his delusions of grandeur come true?  

Ultimately though, viewing a movie is not only about what we want. If you give yourself to watching Birdman (or any movie), you are tacitly agreeing to go on a shared journey with the filmmakers. And if you go along with this movie, you are going to be stuck with the emotional and philosophical reverberations of that final shot [which, I will go ahead and add, involves Emma Stone smiling].

Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at

More Posts