We are living in the era of the Netflix original. As strict covid19 restrictions across the globe limit the numbers allowed in cinema theatres; many direct their attention to the small screen. Charlie Kaufman’s work has never been known for being ordinary and easy to explain but his latest project may baffle even the most loyal of fans.
If you are looking for simple escapism after a long day of zoom calls and an easy to follow storyline, this motion picture is not for you. If you are looking for a critique on the consumption of art and half an hour of trekking through Wikipedia pages and reviews long after the final credits have rolled, then this is for you. An artsy monologue with a snowy background slowly moves towards the obscene until the viewer finds themselves watching in disbelief as an old naked man follows a maggot-infested animated pig down a high school hallway.
A young woman without a name (Killarney born Jessie Buckley) embarks on a road trip with her boyfriend. Jake (Jesse Plemons) will immediately be recognised from another strange and wonderful work, “Black Mirror”. The actor has been associated with weird introverted characters since his appearance as Todd on “Breaking Bad”. We are told that road trips remind us that the world is larger than the one that exists within our own heads. The romantic idea of the old fashioned road trip has shaped many of the greats and is a Hollywood staple. However, we are quickly told that our beret wearing protagonist is “thinking of ending things”.
The line is repeated like a familiar prayer. This relationship has reached the end of its road. The viewer is an awkward bystander, wishing a relationship that has passed its expiration date would end. It is all too easy to relate to this experience. We cringe as we watch both parties try to fill an uncomfortable silence. Kaufman’s film mirrors the human experience to the point of it being painful to watch. The dialogue is long as is the wait for the big twist that never comes. We are reminded that people can’t jump off trains in real life in the same way that this romantic relationship cannot come to a satisfactory end where both parties happily continue with their everyday lives.
The long journey through the snowy place that is beautiful in a “bleak, heartbroken kind of way” leads us to an old farmhouse. Even the animals have been abandoned and left to fend for themselves with disastrous consequences. We realise that much like Poe’s “House of Usher”, this home is diseased. The question is whether or not the disease lies within the walls of the building or within the bloodline. This is a farm of neglect. The basement is sellotaped and closed in the house that was abandoned by hope a long time ago.
Toni Collette and David Thewliss bring star quality to this weird and wonderful film. Collette has a history of using her immense talent to elevate independent films. While many may recognise Thewlis as a certain werewolf from the Harry Potter franchise. The strange duo’s appearance brings the most enjoyable and chaotic scenes of this film to life. Appearances change, time is only a concept and a term in Trivial Pursuit is subject to much debate. Life (“the fast train to hell”) seems to lose all structure as the viewer is left with a cool sense of unease as they shiver at the edge of their seat. Jake’s childhood bedroom is a well-kept shrine with shelves of well-known works of art ranging from Wordsworth to a copy of “A Beautiful Mind”.
Amongst the chaos quotes from literary critics and entire paragraphs of reviews are recited, something for the audience to cling to as they try and fail to ground themselves during this fever dream that doesn’t seem to end. Wilde’s stark statement that “few people ever possess their souls before they die.” brings another level to this story that will stay with the viewer long after the film has ended. God gives these characters more than they can bear as time blows past this house. The people within the farmhouse remain stationary experiencing the horrors of ageing that Yeats warned us about. The viewer scratches their head and wonders whether it is finally time to google “I’m thinking of ending things- explained”. The conversation on the car journey home ranges from the problematic nature of Frank Loesser’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside” to Dave Wallace Foster’s suicide.
Buckley recites a long winded review of “A Woman Under the Influence” that showcases her range as an actress. However, at this point, Kaufman has lost the majority of viewers. Those that have read Ian Reid’s novel of the same name know what to expect, the ending was explained to them step by step. Those who bypassed the novel and went straight to Netflix do not have such a privilege. The fleeting scenes of a high school janitor shown throughout the film soon become the main plot of this story as the old man happily walks towards his death alongside his talking pig companion that gives his own tuppence on the meaning of life. At this point, the viewer may feel emotionally drained but the musical number from ‘Oklahoma’ and a Nobel prize acceptance speech are still to come!
Essentially this is a film about the one that got away, the road not taken. A young man never approached a beautiful lady in a bar and is haunted by what might have been. The nameless young lady is filled with conflicting opinions, things he has heard, paintings he has seen. The janitor desperately tries to fill his daydream with ‘stuff’, anything to distract from the deafening silence. As humans we constantly wonder would we be happy IF…This is a janitor that has watched an endless cycle of school musicals as he yearns for an alternative reality, he destroyed a long time ago.
Buckley explains that the film evokes different emotions in different people and isn’t that what a great piece of art is supposed to do? The viewer is the final piece in this terrifying puzzle, whether or not they last the two hours and fourteen minutes is another story.