After 5 years, Charlie Kaufman returns with his latest directorial work, one that is layered with meticulous planning, confusing visual elements, deliberate plot holes, and surreal sense of questioning that permeates every watch I’ve given to it thus far. It is perhaps a film that stands as one of its own kind, a genre that Kaufman himself presides over. It’s a superb work, even if it’s not his absolute best one.
First, I just want to say how Charlie Kaufman is part of an echelon of directors and writers than stand above 99% of their peers. Saying “it’s not his best” work still puts it miles ahead of plenty out there, even in the arthouse scene. Second, there’s really no way to talk about this film without heavy spoilers, so I will summarize my experiences with this film spoiler free here: the film has heavy amounts of reincorporation that are not immediately obvious to the viewer even upon second and third viewings. The timing of every scene has extraordinary amounts of planning and intention behind their deliveries. No scene in this film is without purpose, even when they are shot simply. Kaufman instills a sense of dread even in seemingly mundane moments that carries throughout the majority of the film, delivering an experience dripping with suspense and tension that refuses to let go.
Spoilers begin here. Your warning.
There are many sequences that feed into the narrative of the janitor clearly fantasizing, and one of the central themes is both wish fulfillment and wasted potential. Clearly, the janitor was a “diligent” worker who had potential and maybe even the grades to back it up in his youth, but it never amounted to anything. He was too shy to talk to a random woman in a bar, and he clearly felt as though he was being creepy, as her monologue late in the film shows. I use “monologue” here because even though she is talking “to” the janitor, she is clearly not talking “with” him rather than “at” him. He is, essentially, allowing himself to talk with himself and beat himself up over his wasted chance and space. It’s not an uncommon experience for suicidal depressives to relive these moments through perspectives of others to “justify” their rationale for ending their lives, and it’s a stage our central character is clearly in. Since the events of the entire film take place through this lens, it’s important to note how each character’s relations change, and numerous plot holes (such as the female lead’s name and occupation) make sense in hindsight, although the viewer could argue she changed aspects of herself to fit Jake’s parents’ conceptions of her. When she sees herself in the pictures on the first floor of the house, it’s because the janitor sees himself as she is him. In a way, there are multiple points where, in the film, she becomes a bit too much of an individual character even in his own mind, and when she does, she becomes “replaced” by a variation of herself, such as changing her accent and suddenling smoking cigarettes while Jake drives, or even changing into a character from a Robert Zemekis film the janitor is watching while at work. Our female lead cannot have autonomy because she is a piece of imagination based on a non-experience the janitor had many years ago- one he clearly laments and regrets.
This concept also explains (and, in a sense, forgives) certain changes that are physically impossible in real life, such as costume changes, or changes to color schemes that reflect the mood of the scene. At dinner, the colors are warm and radiant as though they are really in an old farmhouse, and their discussions take place as though they were a family. When Jake and the female lead are alone and waiting for them, many colors are more blue and faded, as though there is a coldness that permeates the house as the janitor feels a sense of loneliness and dread about his parents. The sudden changes happen when there is, typically, warmth even when in the face of contrasting elements such as arguing with his mother at dinner, or being next to a hospital bed with an older version of his mother as she lay dying in front of Jake. These changes are consistent throughout the entire film, all the way to the first scene when our female lead is waiting for Jake to pick her up, and she notices a man watching her who is clearly the janitor, and then on a return shot is clearly Jake.
On a technical level, each and every element is so ludicrously planned and well executed that it’s almost maddening. Each frame of this film carries purpose. Every single actor involved gives a stellar performance. The cinematography is magnificent. Each set piece is beyond average. Toni Collette’s teeth change from her different appearances. The commentary on aging, pain, suffering, and the frailty of the human condition is front and center. On an emotional level, there was already a sense of connection I felt from the start of this film until its ending that has made me weep every time I have watched it.
Honestly, I struggled to figure out how to rate this film. I enjoy both of Kaufman’s previous two directing works more, even if only marginally, but this film sets a perfect example of how to direct films. This film feels like something Kaufman has not really done before, a bit of an arthouse emotional drama and, at times, a thriller/horror film. There are numerous changes in this film from the source material that serve to amplify the great qualities of both the original book and this film. I would love to perhaps pick it apart after watching it even more, and detail everything in a more thorough analysis of its themes. In the end, I simply cannot deny how much stellar work went into this film and the results set it apart from basically everything else in 2020. I give this film a 10 out of 10.