Why Did I Watch It? A new Kaufman is pretty exciting.
A young woman is on her way to visit her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. The parents live on a farm, the journey from the city is long, and the day wintry. It is snowing heavily. She says she is worried about getting caught by the weather and not being able to get home later, but this is only part of the picture. She is thinking about breaking off the relationship, her troubled thoughts colouring her behaviour.
At the farm, things proceed as expected, at first. Everyone is nervous. The parents seem eccentric, uncultured, no one is sure what to say. But as night falls, other, stranger, events occur. The basement door is taped shut and has scratch marks on it. The family dog starts shaking itself dry and can’t stop. The parents disappear, reappear, age and de-age dramatically. The young woman gets caught in an infinite loop going down the stairs. And still: she is thinking of ending things. She tells herself, over and over.
Writer-director Charlie Kaufman has built a career around investigating how our subconscious reinterprets our experiences. Somewhere between actual events, and the way our brains perceive them, falls the shadow, and this is where Kaufman places his characters. His films, both as a screenwriter and director, provide a flexible version of reality, where dreams, ideas and thoughts interact with people, places and events.
In his previous films, Kaufman’s unconventional narratives have been tied to the central character. The crazed drugs-and-swamp shoot-em-up at the end of ‘Adaptation’, was Nicholas Cage’s screenwriter trying to wrangle too many different elements into his script. Or, the world’s within world’s within world’s of ‘Synecdoche New York’, was Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s playwright showing his inability to separate his life from his art. However bugnuts these films got, the connection of plot to character was always present, which grounded the story and gave you a way into their imaginative rendering.
But in this film, Kaufman’s latest and his first for Netflix, this element is missing. The events you are watching are still one character’s interior monologue, only this time it’s one we don’t spend much time with; a lonely, ageing janitor, who’s contemplating suicide. The bulk of the film – the long car ride, the awkward dinner, the weird events at the house – are his musings about a girl that he met briefly a long time ago. As he weighs his mortality he wonders: what might have happened between them if he had played his cards differently?
In a way, this is classic Kaufman. It is clever, and witty, and again demonstrates his ability to show us things we have seen many times before, in a unique way. Unhappy relationships, life inertia, dysfunctional families; none of this is new ground for a movie, but its presentation here, feels new. And the tone is equally unusual for this material. While it is more of a domestic drama, it feels like a horror film. I was especially struck by how most of the action takes place in a void; the falling snow presses in around the car, and blocks out the landscape, while the farmhouse, by night, appears to exist in a featureless, inky black limbo. It is unsettling, and captures the headspace of a damaged psyche.
But somewhere around the middle of the film, when I realised the headspace we were investigating did not belong to any of the main players, I started to lose interest. Essentially, you spend the bulk of the generous run time with characters who are entirely imaginary; nothing they do, or say, ever happened, nothing hinges on their actions, there are no consequences for their decisions. And while I can admire the intelligence behind the allusions and symbolism, structuring the movie this way robbed it of any emotional resonance. The main character is a fringe character, who we only know too briefly. Why do we care about him? We are not given a reason to. This derails the ending, which reaches for a ‘Synecdoche’ style crescendo, and which falls very flat. It is stylish, and strange, but empty.
There is still quite a lot to enjoy. Jessie Buckley is excellent as the indecisive young woman, and Jesse Plemens is also first rate as her low key boyfriend. And the production design and cinematography heighten the mood considerably. There is a lot here to grapple with. But the lack of emotional connection I felt in Kaufman’s other work, kept it at a distance. This for me was a purely cerebral exercise, and effective on that level but otherwise disengaging.
Bonus goodwill points for the mention of ‘Forget Paris’, and the joke about the ‘Genius’ edition of trivial pursuit.