Greetings again from the darkness. We should never look to Charlie Kaufman to pull us out of the pandemic doldrums, although he is an absurdly talented writer who specializes in unusual plots and oddball characters. Mr. Kaufman is also an over-thinker and a non-stop thinker – I would imagine his brain rarely goes quiet. This time out, he directs his own adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel, and the result is a mind and time bending existential crisis that leaves us feeling a bit down. Yet, as always, Kaufman’s work keeps our minds racing.
Jessie Buckley, who was so terrific in WILD ROSE (2019), stars as The Young Woman going on a blizzardy road trip with Jake (Jesse Plemons, THE IRISHMAN, 2019), her boyfriend of the last six weeks or so. They are headed to visit Jake’s parents who live in a “farmy” and remote area. Act 1 is spent in the car as the wipers flap, and the woman and Jake hold awkward conversation. We, as the audience, listen to her inner thoughts, including, “I’m thinking of ending things.” She is truly an outstanding actress, and carries much of the weight with this one.
The woman is not really unnamed, in fact, throughout the movie, she has multiple names including Lucy and Louisa. And character names aren’t the only fluid piece of Kaufman’s puzzle. She is variously labeled as studying Quantum Physics, a writer of poetry, and an artist. Are you confused yet? If not, you will be.
Act 2 takes place at the farm house where Jake’s parents live, and it shifts the film from awkward to bizarre. Toni Collette (HEREDITARY, 2018) and David Thewlis (“Fargo”) play his mother and father, both excited for the visit, but unconventional, to say the least, in their social graces. Ms. Collette over-laughs just beyond the point of perplexing and nudges the beginning of downright weird. She and Thewlis are exceptional in their ability to keep Lucy off-balance, and Jake hyper-annoyed. We aren’t sure what to make of what we are seeing … and neither is Lucy. While none of these folks takes a single bite of the dinner spread, the tone turns to surreal. Overlapping time lines of past, present, and future become haunting and hypnotic.
The film itself is disorienting, and Act 3 does little to help us regain our equilibrium. Jake and Lucy finally start their drive back, as the snow begins falling even harder. Throughout the production, Kaufman includes references to William Wordsworth, Pauline Kael, Andrew Wyeth, Mussolini, and more. He also inserts clips of a high school janitor (played by Gus Boyd) as he goes about his duties. This janitor is part of a finale featuring an animated pig and a dance number … both of which occur after Jake and Lucy have debated the importance of Cassevetes’ A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, and the performance of Gena Rowlands.
Oklahoma plays a role as both a setting and a reference musical, and a stop for ice cream at Tulsey Town, adds to the oddity and the feeling of dread that encompasses us for much of the movie (when we aren’t chuckling at the absurdities). Kaufman mixes genres with glee – horror, comedy, and psychological thriller all lead us to a dance scene and many unanswered questions about what is real and what is only in Lucy’s mind. We never see what attracted these two to each other, but we do wallow in their misery and discomfort. Charlie Kaufman’s previous screenplays include such brilliance as ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, and ADAPTATION, although this one may have more in common with his SYNECHDOCE, NEW YORK – a film that can wrestle with this one over which is his least accessible. An existential film where past, present, and future mingle and bizarre observations are made on aging and memory, can only fit into Charlie Kaufman’s oeuvre. It will surely make you think, though it may end with you asking ‘why?’
On Netflix September 4.