Alex Garland has been one of Hollywood’s most stable sci-fi screenwriters for some time. In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a sly and invigorating potboiler that made you think. It helped make Alicia Vikander a star and Garland himself was nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay. The movie even won an Oscar for best visual effects, beating out some pretty pricey competition. With one movie, Garland displayed a natural knack for directing. His follow-up, Annihilation, is based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer and has already run into some trouble. After poor test screenings, the producer tried to force changes but these were refused. In a face-saving outreach, Annihilation will only be playing theatrically in North America and will debut on Netlfix weeks later for the rest of the world. The suits are not confidant in the larger public clicking with Annihilation, and they might be right. This isn’t going to be one of those films that people leave declaring their love over in effusive terms, despite what the critical praise may lead you to believe. This is a movie that you leave saying, “Huh.” It’s so powerfully inscrutable to the point that most other conventional forms of cinematic entertainment and narrative are smothered. And yet, it’s that inscrutability that might be the movie’s biggest point and might be its biggest asset.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year ever since he ventured into a strange environmental disaster zone. Then he reappears with a mysterious illness and little memory of the events. Lena joins an all-female crew of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) to find out some answers by exploring The Shimmer, the site where an alien meteorite collided with coastal land and has been changing local life forms at an alarming pace.
Like I said, this movie is a conundrum, not just in a “What did I just watch?” sort of analysis but also in a, “Did I actually like that movie?” personal introspection. There isn’t really a mystery here to unpack as there is an enigmatic experience to explain. I’m doing something I don’t normally like to do, which is immediately type my review shortly after seeing a movie. I generally like to marinate on my feelings after experiencing a movie; however, with this one I felt compelled to put furious fingers to the keyboard, trying to explore my myriad conflicted feelings and find my way out the other side, or at least articulate that journey. I’ll try and steer away from any major spoilers though I worry that even discussing some of my confounding responses will require some thematic and plot context, so beware readers who wish to go into this experience completely pure.
Annihilation is an existential horror movie about biology’s indifference to mankind; at least that’s my best thematic interpretation. In the beginning, Lena is explaining the history of cellular life, the simple splitting of cells that begat all life on the planet. There was no larger forethought, no agenda, and no malice, only the enacting of DNA programming. Ultimately, I think the alien mutations are running on a similar principle. This isn’t an invasion by any traditional definition. This isn’t anything nefarious. This isn’t even anything as clearly identifiable as a virus spreading its illness. This is simply life stirring in a few new recipes. There’s a general level of indifference to the overall setting, which makes the environmental wonders and horrors more dispiriting. For those who demand clear answers from their storytelling, they will be left sorely disappointed. Annihilation doesn’t have any real answers for why these things are happening. They just are occurring, much like the beginning steps of cellular life that found new modes of survival on Earth billions of years prior. It’s just another stage in the development of life. The fact that humanity can be so easily cast aside, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. There’s a mounting sense of existential dread about man’s inevitable demise. One character dubs their mission suicidal and is corrected by another. “People confuse suicide with self-destruction,” she says. “Very few people are suicidal, but all of us are self-destructive.” The plotline confirms this as characters fall victim to hubris and curiosity. However, one may argue there is biological in destruction and reconstitution.
Be warned, dear reader, this is a rather slow movie with a lot of space for breathing, the kind of thing meant to establish a particular atmospheric mood. If you connect with the material, it works, obviously. The problem with Annihilation is that because it’s so inscrutable, because it keeps you at a distance on purpose, that it allows more opportunities to check out. We’re anticipating weirdness and a general breakdown in the group of scientists, and Garland seems to understand this, which may be why he gradually delivers his genre scares. There is an amazing sequence in the middle that is the fuel of nightmares, made all the more searing and scaring by a horrifying sound design that’s even worse when you connect it with the visual source. I was almost compelled to look away and spare my memory this ghastly sight. There are other unsettling moments and the overall feel of the film is definitely one of discomfort and dread, but it’s this scene I’ll always remember and that also solidified the nasty surprises from Mother Nature. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The eventual ending should be easy enough to predict thanks to Garland’s flash-forwards tipping your expectations, that is, if you can actually understand the ending. I still cannot say for certain what happened and why or whether I cared about a why. If, as stated above, the point of the movie is man’s inability to find a recognizable motive in the replication of life by biological factors, then that lends itself to a generally unsatisfying end.
One interesting idea that I regret gets short shrift is just the fact that this is an all-female group of scientists venturing where literally only men have gone before. I’m not celebrating this as some sort of nod at feminism but because it offered an interesting storytelling avenue. All the previous groups were all men and they either were killed by the new environmental dangers or went crazy and killed each other. Minor spoilers, but the women fall under the same sway, destined to the same fate, and it feels like a shame. If you’re going to make a point of questioning whether the deterioration of order and sanity is related to an all-masculine entanglement of thinkers, then don’t just have the women repeat the same decline. Or maybe that’s the point? I don’t know.
Portman (Jackie) does an convincing job of alternating looking confused and spooked, mimicking most of the audience reaction. Her character isn’t asking to be found likeable, only capable, though the first time we get a little taste of her as a person is far too late into the movie. Her marriage might not have been built on the strongest foundation, which again leads to the potential thematic deliberation over self-destruction and rebirth. Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is a bit too flatly monotone for my liking. It feels like she’s sleepwalking through the film, like maybe she was on Ambien and can’t remember even performing in this movie. Tessa Thompson is underwhelming especially with knowing how fully captivating she can be onscreen (see: Thor: Ragnarok). The other notable actress is Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) who put on some muscle and swagger and has a terrific breakdown sequence that showcases some unnerving desperation.
I still cannot even say if I liked Annihilation. There are aspects I can definitely admire, like the commitment of its actors, the emphasis on a more scientific approach to an outbreak/invasion thriller, and Garland’s general sense of place. I still think the majority of audiences are going to leave shrugging. Annihilation is more akin to an Under the Skin or Solaris than a monster hunt. It’s quiet, philosophical, and also often boring. It has its thrilling points, its moments of mystery and intrigue, but it also feels like a slow windup to the eventually disappointing reveal that won’t be enough to justify the lethargic pacing. In the end, this is a difficult movie, but not in a way that requires a thorough decoding like mother! or even in a way that requires repeat viewings to play out the twists. Annihilation is difficult by design, keeping its audience from fully engaging, and then offering little in the way of answers or resolution. And I still don’t know if I like that. Dear reader, this is a confounding movie but it might not be the good kind of confounding.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Hateful Eight almost didn’t happen thanks to our modern-day views on copyright and privacy. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino sent the first draft of his newest script to three trusted actors, and within days it had spread to the outer reaches of the Internet. Tarantino was so incensed that he swore to shelve Hateful Eight and never film it. After a staged reading in L.A. with many of the eventual actors for the film, he changed his mind, to the relief of his sizable fanbase and actors everywhere. The Hateful Eight is a drawing room mystery with plenty of Tarantino’s signature propulsive language and bloody violence, but it’s also the director’s least substantial film to date.
In post-Civil War Wyoming, famous bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang for her crimes. Along the way, he meets up with Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter who served in the North and carries a letter written to him from none other than Abraham Lincoln. They’re both heading to Red Rock to extract their bounty earnings. Due to an oncoming blizzard, they’re forced to make a stay at Minnie’s haberdashery, except Minnie isn’t anywhere to be found. There’s Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir) who says Minnie left him in charge, a foppish hangman Oswaldo Moblay (Tim Roth), a quiet cattle driver Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a Confederate general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a Confederate rebel who claims to be the newly designated sheriff of Red Rock. Over the course of one long night, everyone’s true identity will be learned, because someone is not who they seem to be and is secretly waiting to free Daisy and kill the rest.
Even as lesser Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is still an entertaining and talky stage play put to film. The setup is strong and invites the audience to play along, to scrutinize the assorted characters and determine who is telling the truth. There are plenty of twists and turns and some violent surprises to keep things interesting. The conversations of the characters are such a pleasure to listen to; I want to luxuriate in Tarantino’s language. His wordsmith abilities are unparalleled in Hollywood. There’s a reason every star is dying to snag a part in a Tarantino movie, especially now that they’ve caught Oscar fire as of late. That’s somewhat crazy to think about. Cinema’s ultimate indie voice with his encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, high and low art, has become an institution within the system and his violent period films are now looked at as year-end prestige pictures. Tarantino’s M.O. has been to take B-movies and to transform them into A-movie level talent and intelligence. Never has a Tarantino flick felt more B-movie than The Hateful Eight. It was inspired from episodes of TV and it’s easy to see that genesis in its execution. It’s a self-contained mystery that comes to a head. It’s a limited story that’s likely taken as far as it could possible go, pushing three hours. I’m a tad befuddled why this was the movie Tarantino insisted on filming in “glorious Panavision 70 millimeter.” It’s almost entirely set in that one-room interior location. The extra depth that 70 millimeter affords would appear to be wasted, unless you enjoy looking at general store items on shelves in the background. Still, The Hateful Eight is a movie that doesn’t feel like three hours and harbors enough intrigue and payoffs to hook.
I tried to diagnose why this felt like lesser Tarantino, and it’s because over the course of almost three hours we don’t have much at stake because the people inhabiting the movie aren’t really characters but tough-talking facades. Tarantino is often cited for his uniquely florid dialogue, and nobody writes dialogue like Tarantino and his naturally stylized cadences, but another of the man’s skills is how great he can write a coterie of colorful characters that pop from the big screen. You might not be able to remember many lines from Hans Landa or Vincent Vega or Django, but you remember the vivid characters. Tarantino is preternaturally skilled at building characters that feel fully realized with their own viewpoints and flaws and prior experiences. He can make characters stand out but he also has the great ability to make the larger-than-life characters feel real, which is truly genius screenwriting for characters so flamboyant. The older romance in Jackie Brown is perfectly captured and felt. It’s downright mature. This is the first time I would say Tarantino has disappointed when it comes to his characters.
There are broadly drawn folk aplenty onscreen and they still talk in that wonderfully florid language of Tarantino’s that actors must savor like a fine steak, something they can sink themselves in for and enjoy every morsel. However, the characters onscreen have never felt this empty before. They are what they are and the only real change that occurs is that many will be dead before the end credits. They don’t have arcs per se but end points. It’s all about unmasking and identifying the rogues in a room full of rogues. Beyond Warren and Mannix, we’re left with precious little for characterization beyond bravado and nihilism. The effect of how empty they are would be felt less if we weren’t stranded with them for near three hours. Trapped in a room with a group of suspicious characters can only go so far, and ultimately it’s a parlor game that cannot sustain longer staying power. I doubt I’ll ever watch this with the frequency of other Tarantino flicks.
“You keep talkin’. You’re gonna talk yourself to death,” says one of those hateful numbers to another member. I’d pay to listen to Tarantino rewrite the phone book, that’s how excellent the man is with his dialogue. The man likes to hear his words and I like listening to them too. The problem is that The Hateful Eight has no reason for its gargantuan running time. As stated above, the characters we’re getting are nowhere near as complex or interesting as previous Tarantino escapades, so the talking can grow weary. Tarantino has patented a new formula from 2009’s Inglorious Basterds that involves characters playing a game of I-know-you-know-I-know while they suss out the truth, all the while the tension finely simmers until it blows. It’s a long fuse of suspense that can pay off rich rewards, like the near-perfect tavern scene in Basterds. The dinner table scene with Candie and the skull of his favorite house slave is another good example. Once our titular eight have gathered at Minnie’s, the entire movie is this sort of scene. It may be broken up into chapters and flashbacks but it feels like one long scene.
There’s also far less at stake than there was with Basterds or Django Unchained, even Reservoir Dogs, and that’s because the protagonists had goals and we had built up far more allegiance and time with them. When they were in danger, it mattered. The danger doesn’t feel as immediate because so little else is happening. There are plenty of comparisons to Dogs, which also utilized a hidden identity and a confined location. I think the difference was that, besides it being Tarantino’s first foray as a director, the tension was felt more because the danger was immediate from the start and we cared about character relationships. I cared about Mr. Orange and Mr. White and their bond. I can’t say I cared about any of the characters in Hateful Eight. I found them interesting at points, sure, but they were all a bunch of rotten bastards with little variation short of a burgeoning understanding between Mannix and Warren. The wait at Minnie’s feels like the Basterds tavern scene on steroids, pushed to the breaking point, and yet absent the urgency.
The acting is yet another tasty dish served up by Tarantino, and it feels like the actors are having the time of their lives playing their lively scoundrels. Jackson (Kingsmen: the Secret Service) settles in nicely and always seems to elevate his game when he’s reciting Tarantino’s words. He’s icy cool in scenes where the other characters are trying to do whatever they can to fire him up. He’s less bombastic than we’ve come to expect from Jackson. For bombast, there’s Russell (Furious 7) who cranks his performance to the broad heights of his bellicose lawman. Goggins gives a sly and extra caffeinated performance that answered the question of what it would sound like if you dropped his character from TV’s Justified into a Tarantino movie. Roth (Selma) feels like he’s doing his best manic Christoph Waltz impression. Dern (Nebraska) is a racist codger with a soft spot for his kin. Madsen (Kill Bill vol. 2) seems somewhat wasted as a taciturn “cow puncher.” Bichir (The Heat) gets some laughs as a seemingly aloof caretaker. It’s Leigh (Anomalisa) who steals the show, especially in the film’s second half. Daisy is a character that relishes being bad, and Leigh takes every opportunity to enjoy the fun. Her character plays a bit of possum during the first half but it’s the second half where she lets loose and becomes unhinged, and her exasperated and grotesque responses are often played for great sputtering comic effect. It’s a boys movie but it’s the lone woman who will prove most memorable. Tarantino’s last two movies have won acting awards and Leigh just might make it three-in-a-row.
There are also some uncomfortable elements that can deter your viewing enjoyment, which isn’t exactly a foreign charge against Tarantino’s career. At this point you can probably repeat the oft-cited accusations: flagrant use of the N-word and exploitative violence. At least the historical background provides a context for the other characters unleashing the N-word, and I’d argue it tells us something about the characters as well. The characters that use the N-word when referring to Warren are the ones with allegiances to the Confederacy and those viewpoints don’t vanish even after you lost a war. They’re dismissive and intolerant and view Warren as sub-human. It also doesn’t approach Django Unchained-levels of excess, so I let it slide (I know my perspective as a white male makes my opinion on this effectively meaningless). It was the violence that got to me, specifically the violence directed at Daisy. Tarantino’s penchant for violence goes all the way back to his ear-slicing debut, so it’s nothing unexpected. He often tells stories about violent men and women fighting their way in a world governed by violence. I accept that these characters are bad to their core. That doesn’t excuse behavior. Violence on screen can be tempered with authorial commentary, but it’s the association that bothered me with Hateful Eight. For the entire movie, Daisy is put through the physical wringer. Our very first image of her is with a black eye. She’s a nasty woman and Ruth often expresses his distaste of her by punching her in the face, which is played as dark comedy. This happens repeatedly. We’re meant to recoil from much of the bloody violence on screen but repeatedly we’re meant to laugh at the violent suffering of Daisy. Tarantino has often used over-the-top violence as dark humor, and I’ve laughed along with it. This was one instance though where I stopped laughing and starting shifting uncomfortably in my seat.
Even lesser Tarantino can still be plenty entertaining and superior to most of what Hollywood usually cranks out as product. The Hateful Eight can be exciting, funny, surprising, and plenty of things, but what it can’t be is more than a lark. Tarantino has taken stories that would seem like larks, particularly the Kill Bill series, and infused them with pathos and meditation and soul to go along with all that snazzy genre stuff. It’s disappointing that Hateful Eight isn’t more than what’s on screen, but what’s on screen is still worth watching, though I don’t know whether it’s worth watching a second time.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s been seven long years since the last Charlie Kaufman movie graced our screens. Cinema needs a voice as wonderfully strange and intelligent as Kaufman’s, and if it wasn’t for a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, we might have had to wait even longer. The stop-motion animated film Anomalisa is one of Kaufman’s most accessible movies and it involves felt puppets. Think about that for a second.
Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a successful motivational speaker traveling to Cincinnati for a brief conference. He’s supposed to give a keynote speech on the importance of treating the customer like they are special; however, Michael is trapped in a purgatory of redundancy. Every other human being looks the same and sounds the same (all voiced by Tom Noonan), even Michael’s wife and young son. Then he hears a voice that breaks from the conformity of Noonan’s vocal chords. The voice belongs to Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason-Leigh), an unassuming and unabashed fan of Stone. She’s bright and lively but guarded due to a facial burn that hampers her self-esteem. She’s eager to spend time with Michael and confused when he insists on spending more time with her. Men usually gravitate to Lisa’s more carefree and forward friend. Not her. Over the course of that night, Michael and Lisa navigate one another. He’s fascinated to hear a new voice and wants to know all he can about her. She’s flattered with the sincere consideration. Michael only wants to be with Lisa from now on, but this decision will have consequences and it feels like there is an invisible force fighting against their union.
I still can’t shake the fact that there seems little reason for this movie to be animated. Perhaps it’s the fact that it started as an oral play, but the use of the animation medium and everything it can provide so rarely feels utilized. The repeated faces of all the other humdrum human beings in the world, that wider-eyed gnome-like face, is a fine touch but the same could be accomplished through rudimentary computer effects now. Hell, Kaufman’s own Being John Malkovich achieved this in a memorable scene and that was over 16 years ago. I won’t pretend to know the economics of the animation industry but I just assume anything as time-consuming and precise is going to be pricey (reportedly the budget was $8 million). I thought of money during the first thirty minutes. It’s almost like a bet, as if Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson (TV’s Frankenhole, Community) were trying to animate the banality of a business trip just because nobody has ever done it before. Here are a short list of other things, I assume, have escaped being replicated in animated form: waiting in line at the DMV, looking for a lost TV remote, cleaning one’s ears, watching the Republican presidential debates, changing the toilet paper roll, and filling out the iTunes user agreement. Would any of these banal acts deserve to be animated? Probably not, but I’m sure that’s the point for Kaufman and Johnson. For the longest time we’re meant to live the empty existence of Michael Stone and so we spend thirty minutes making pained small talk, checking into a sterile hotel room, calling loved ones, reconnecting with an ex, and visiting a sex shop in a drunken haze. My friend Ben Bailey asked the same question at five-minute junctions: “Is anything going to happen?”
Once Lisa is introduced, the movie finds its footing and purpose and it is a relief. Maybe that was Kaufman and Johnson’s design so that we, the audience, would also feel the same elation. The rest of the movie is watching a love affair, two people coming into one another’s orbit. The dialogue exchanges are very natural and slowly reveal different layers of the characters, mostly Lisa. Michael is intoxicated and demurs often, instead only wanting to hear the sweet sound of her voice. There’s a delicious irony to Michael working in customer service, an industry that is often listening to people’s angry voices over phone lines, and his inability to distinguish speech. Instantly we get a strong understanding of just how desperate Michael is to form a real connection. It’s his fawning attention that allows Lisa to allow herself to be vulnerable and assertive. In one of the most realistic sex scenes ever captured in movies, Lisa communicates what she wants and what provides her satisfaction, and Michael dutifully abides, determined to hear the sounds of her wonderful voice reach climactic degrees of pleasure. The love scene has garnered plenty of press just for the fact that it’s an animated film and our two characters are fully rendered, though this goes beyond just having recognizable parts. The way the bodies move, the way the lines and creases fold, the way people react to the inherent awkwardness of sexual congress, it’s all faithfully recreated and done so without a hint of comedy. This is by no means the raucous copulation from Team America. It’s a surprisingly touching moment as these two characters simply connect on a few levels.
It’s after the sex scene that everything changes. I’ll forego spoilers and say that there’s a certain buyer’s remorse when it comes to impulsive love affairs, and trying to maintain that same feeling of ecstasy can be like chasing a drug that requires more and more of oneself. There’s a very interesting transition that brilliantly illustrates Michael’s anguish. The conclusion is at once inevitable, hopeful, and also despairing. That’s because it opens up the world in a new way and provides further examination on Michael and the consequences of his crushing depression. The core of the movie is about the need for human connection. I wouldn’t cite Kaufman as a romantic but he does prioritize human connection and believes in the power of those fleeting moments. Aren’t we all looking for our own anomaly, someone whose voice slices through the din? Once those moments run their course, some of us grieve and some of us ascend, made stronger and more complete from the sum total of those magical experiences. The ending provides a new lens to interpret the movie, though most viewers will have already suspected given the mundane prison of the world onscreen. It’s not exactly a twist ending but more a confirmation that Michael Stone is personalizing his misery and unable to escape it. All he can look forward to are those fleeting moments of human connection and hope.
The stop-motion animation is impressive though it seems intentional to elicit a certain strangeness. Stop-motion used to have that certain stutter-stop movement that made it wonderfully alien. With advances in technology, stop-motion can now look as seamlessly animated as other forms of the medium, as evidenced by the wonderful Laika releases like The Box Trolls and ParaNorman. Johnson and Kaufman decided to use felt dolls which allows the characters to have a certain glow to them, as if they’re emanating some internal lightness of being (apologies to Kundera). The illusion is getting easier to hide. Johnson makes the decision to show the seams of his universe. The facial marks that indicate the interchangeable partitions remain visible, making the Noonan-voiced characters look like they’re all wearing glasses. It’s an animated movie that wants to remind you it’s animated but tell a story that doesn’t need the assistance of animation. That’s one unconventional goal. I’ll admit that it did tickle me to watch the ongoing troubles of getting a room key card to work. Johnson also makes use of long takes to better communicate the reality of this world, from the mundane to the ecstasy. There’s one dream sequence that dips into more identifiable and surreal Kaufman territory, but excluding this moment the movie is mostly the ordinary fixtures of ordinary hotel rooms.
Following the uniqueness of its idiosyncratic creator, Anomalisa is unlike anything else out there and an animated film that is nakedly personable and desperate to grasp for something richer and more meaningful. I can’t say that this was a story that demanded to be told through this style or animation or if it even benefits from this approach, but Kaufman’s ear for human relationships is still sharp and refined. It’s like watching a stage play that just happens to be made with felt puppets that oddly feel very real. It’s a movie that has different layers of what constitutes reality, given an extra sheen of artifice. It’s a movie that conveys the hopes and disappointments of human connection from the awkward to the mundane to the revelatory. The film does an excellent job of communicating the all-encompassing heaviness of depression, how the ordinary can be just as soul crushing and harmful. And yet the film ends not on Michael but on Lisa and on a degree of hope, that the chance encounters that mark our lives are not without consequence and benefits, aiding people to take needed steps outward. It’s a movie about the significance of human connection; something that Michael desperately spends years looking for again, to feel fully human once more, to ignite the synapses. Anomalisa is a thoughtful and touching story. I don’t know if it’s an excellent movie or an unnecessary adaptation of an innately affecting stage play, but it’s Kaufman as romantic and cynic. Who knew puppets could get so deep?
Nate’s Grade: B+
Nothing comes easy when dealing with acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. The most exciting scribe in Hollywood does not tend to water down his stories. Kaufman’s latest head-trip, Synecdoche, New York, is a polarizing work that follows a nontraditional narrative and works on a secondary existential level. That’s enough for several critics to hurtle words like “incomprehensible” and “confusing” as weapons intended to marginalize Synecdoche, New York as self-indulgent prattle. I guess no one wants to go to the movies and think any more. Thinking causes headaches, after all.
Caden (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a struggling 40-year-old theater director trying to find meaning in his beleaguered life. His wife (Catherine Keener) has run off to Germany with his little daughter, Olive. He also manages to botch a potential romance with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a woman who works in the theater box-office who has an unusual crush on Caden. He’s also plagued by numerous mysterious health ailments that only seem to multiply. While his life seems to be in the pits, Caden is offered a theater grant of limitless money. He has big ambitions: he will restage every moment of his whole life to try and discover the hard truths about life and death. Caden must then cast actors to portray the various people in his life. Sammy (Tom Noonan) argues that no other actor could get closer to the truth of Caden; Sammy has been following and studying Caden for over 20 years (don’t bother asking why in a movie like this). Caden also casts his new wife, Claire (Michelle Williams), as herself. The theater production gets more and more complex, eventually requiring the “Caden” character to hire his own Caden actor. Caden hires Hazel to be his assistant and Sammy falls in love with her. Caden admonishes his actor, “That Hazel isn’t for you.” Caden then tries sleeping with “Hazel” (Emily Watson) to get even with the real Hazel. By producing a theatrical mechanism that almost seems self-sustaining, Caden wants to leave his mark on the world and potentially live forever.
I heard plenty of blather about how mind-numbing Synecdoche, New York was and how Kaufman had really done it this time when he composed a script that involves characters playing characters playing characters. People told me that it was all too much to keep track of and that it made their brains hurt. The movie is complex, yes, and demands a viewer to be actively engaged, but the movie is far from confusing and any person or critic that just throws up their hands and says, “Nope, too much to think about,” is doing their brain a disservice. The movie is relatively easy to follow in a simple linear cause-effect manner; Kaufman only really goes as deep as two iterations from reality, meaning that Caden has his initial doppelganger and then eventually that doppelganger must get his own Caden doppelganger (it’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds if you see it). Now, where the movie might be tricky to understand is how deeply contemplative and metaphorical it can manage to be, especially at its somber close. That doesn’t mean that Synecdoche, New York is impossible to understand only that it requires some extra effort to appreciate. But this movie pays off in huge ways on repeat viewings, adding texture to Kaufman’s intricately plotted big picture, unfolding into a richer statement about the nature of life and death and love.
Theater has often been an easy metaphor for life. William Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.” Kaufman movies always dwell substantially with the nature of identity, and Synecdoche, New York views identity through the artifice of theater. Caden searches for something brutal and true via the stage, but of course eventually his search for truth becomes compromised with personal interests. Characters in Caden’s life are altered and in the end when Caden steps down, as himself, reality starts getting revised. The truth is often blurred through the process of interpretation. Caden ends up swapping identities with a bit player in the story of his life, potentially finding a greater sense of personal comfort as someone else. Don’t we all play characters in our lives? Don’t we all assume different identities for different purposes? Do we act differently at a job than at home, at church than at a bar? Caden remarks that there are no extras in life and that everyone is a lead in his or her own story.
Kaufman’s movie is also funny, like really darkly funny and borderline absurdist to the point of being some strange lost work by Franz Kafka (Hazel even mentions she’s reading Kafka’s The Trial). You may be so caught up trying to render the complexities of the story to catch all of the humor. The movie exists in a surreal landscape, where the characters treat the fantastic practically as mundane. Hazel’s house is constantly on fire and yet none of the characters regard this as dangerous or out of the ordinary. It is just another factor of life. The entire subplot with Hope Davis as a hilariously incompetent therapist is deeply weird. Caden suffers some especially cruel Job-like exploits, particularly what befalls his estranged daughter, Olive. He’s obsessed with her hidden whereabouts and European upbringing, to the point that Caden cannot even remember the name of his other daughter he has with Claire. There is a deathbed scene between the two that is equally sad and twisted given the astounding behavior that Caden is forced to apologize for. There are running gags that eventually transform into metaphors, like Caden’s many different medical ailments and the unhelpful bureaucratic doctors who know nothing and refuse to divulge any info. Kaufman even has Emily Watson, an actress mistaken for Morton, play the character of “Hazel.”
This is Kaufman’s debut as a director and I think the movie ultimately benefits by giving its writer more control over the finished product. The movie is such a singular work of creativity that it helps by not having another director; there is no other artistic vision but Kaufman’s. While the film can feel slightly hermetic at times visually, Kaufman and cinematographer Frederick Elmes (The Ice Storm) pack the film with detail. Stylistically, the film is mannered but this is to make maximum impact for the vast amount of visual metaphors. Synecdoche, New York never feels as mannered as the recent Wes Anderson films, henpecked by a style that serves decoration rather than storytelling. The production design for the world-within-a-world is also alluring and imaginative, like a living, breathing dollhouse.
The assorted actors do well with their quirky, flawed characters, but clearly Hoffman is the linchpin to the film. He plays a character from middle age to old age, and at every step Hoffman manages to infuse some level of empathy for a man routinely disappointed by his own life. The failed yet lingering and hopeful romance between Caden and Hazel provides an almost sweet undercurrent for a character obsessed with death. Hoffman is convincing at every moment, even as a hobbled 80-year-old man, and gives a performance steeped in sadness but with the occasional glimmer of hope, whether it be the ambition of his theater project or the dream of holding Hazel once more. Morton is also wonderfully kindhearted and endearing as the woman that just seems to keep slipping away from Caden.
There’s no other way to say it but Synecdoche, New York is a movie that you need to see multiple times to appreciate. The plot is so grandiose in scope and ambition that one sitting does not do it justice. Kaufman has forged a strikingly peculiar movie that manages to be surreal and bleakly comic while also being poignant and humane. This is a big movie with big statements that can be easily missed, but for those willing to dig into the wealth of metaphor and reflection, Synecdoche, New York is a rewarding film experience that sticks with you. By the end of this movie, Kaufman has earned the merging of metaphor and narrative. I have already seen the movie twice and still cannot get it out of my thoughts. This isn’t the kind of movie that you feel warm affection for, like Kaufman’s blissfully profound Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This movie is less a confounding puzzle than an intellectually stimulating examination on art, the human experience, and, ultimately death. If people would rather kill brain cells watching whatever dreck Hollywood secretes every week (cough, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, cough) then that’s their prerogative. Give me a Charlie Kaufman movie and a bottle of aspirin any day.
Nate’s Grade: A