The Voice In His Head
Truth Or Dare, Friend Or Foe?

What do we talk about when we talk about someone losing his grip on reality? When it comes to that question, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s brilliant film, Birdman, is meaty stuff for a psychoanalyst like me. Riggan Thompson, former action hero, has-been, failed husband and father, is struggling to change his life – against a Voice in his head that swings back and forth between the old allure of grandiose self acclaim or ripping self-criticism.

That Voice – who at first is unidentifiable, turns out to be Birdman, his claim to stardom in the movie business. That Voice is the teetering point between reality and insanity. Here is a man, Riggan Thompson (brilliantly played by Michael Keaton), trying to find something real – about love, about fatherhood, about the marriage he destroyed, about his acting: about himself – for the first time in his life. But, what he has to face to find that something is, in the end, too much for him. Riggan Thompson needs that Voice. Why he does is the most important question in this disturbingly inspired film.

Voices In The Mind That Pose As Truth

Voices that criticize, Voices that pose as Truth, inhabit many of our minds, often much more subtly than the Birdman Voice in Riggan. I come head to head with them every day in my office. I see what hostage-takers they are, how hard it is to let them go even in therapy. It’s because these Voices masquerade as friends when they’re really enemies.

In Riggan’s mind, Birdman intrudes and offers “help” when he’s most desperate and self-doubting. When he feels humiliated. When Mike makes him feel like nothing compared to him. Then, the Voice tries to pull him into his old grandiosity; into hiding there … away from his self-comparisons; away from his fear that others really are better. The fight goes like this: “You’re lame, Riggan, in a shithole like this. Let’s get out of here while we can. You were a movie star.  What’re you trying to prove? That you’re good?”

Yes, he’s trying to prove he’s good – a good actor, a good man. But, sadly, he doesn’t believe it. He needs Birdman in the face of rejections, competition, attempts to discount him by people like Mike and theater critic, Tabitha Dickinson, The worst challenge to his identity is the inner critic, though – the Voice that tears him down and confuses fiction for reality.

The worst of struggles is against believing those inner fictions that spread like a virus over what we’re capable of and what we are. Look at Riggan. This Voice that holds him hostage isn’t the “truth.” But, he holds onto that Voice as if it’s a life raft – because he’s afraid he doesn’t exist, will disappear into the oblivion of an everyday person who matters as much and no less than anyone else. When he’s just Riggan, he doesn’t believe he’s enough – and he has an awfully hard time of it.

The Lure Of Escape To A Fantasy of Power

The lure of an escape from his self-hatred is much greater than reality: “You’re a God. Do you see? This is where you belong. Above them all.” Yet, what he’s trying to be above, really, is facing the path from where he’s been to where he’s come – a path of destruction and self-absorption, a path of disengagement from life. The fact that he’s missed the real moments, the real love. This – he can’t face. And, because he can’t, the Voice gets louder and more persuasive in its conviction that escaping his personal reality is the only real truth.

So: does Riggan Thompson jump out the hospital window to death or fly off into the sky with the real birds in Birdman?  This may seem strange to say, but they’re one and the same in the end. Facing the kind of truth that makes us all feel vulnerable is ultimately the only real thing we can do. But, Riggan can’t and tragically chooses a dare to fly off into fantasy instead. His life is just too painful to live.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.