Cert – 15, Run-time – 2 hours 14 minutes, Director – Charlie Kaufman
When travelling through a blizzard to meet her boyfriend’s (Jesse Plemons) parents (David Thewlis, Toni Collette) a young woman (Jessie Buckley) begins to experience warped events that make her certain that she should end her relationship
One of the key lines of dialogue in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is “don’t try to understand it, feel it”. The same advise could be given towards Charlie Kaufman’s latest piece of human observation, taking the form of a quasi-relationship-horror. However, it’s sometimes difficult to properly be able to engage with and ‘feel’ lengthy conversations as part of a long car journey in a blizzard. The conditions are harsh, cold and icy. Jessie Buckley’s character finds herself trapped in a cramped space – heightened by the box-like aspect ratio in which the film is shot in – with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). She’s already sure that her relationship isn’t going where, finding herself repeating the words “I’m thinking of ending things” over and over again in her head. The reason for the car journey is so that she can meet Jake’s parents (played by David Thewlis and Toni Collette) for the first, and possibly last, time; she states early on that it’s unlikely that Jake will ever meet her parents, they don’t even know that he exists. Yet, here she finds herself on a long car journey in snowy conditions from the city to an isolated farmhouse.
For the majority of the car journeys – one of which makes up the first 25 minutes of the film – the audience is seemingly locked outside of the car. The camera sits outside of the windows; the wipers monotonously going back and forth brushing the never ending white downfall that seems to come from nowhere. As the film’s somewhat mysterious protagonist, burdened by a multitude of equally mysterious spam phone calls, is locked inside, the viewer is locked outside simply as an observer. The conversation is limited and struggling. Jake certainly isn’t the most exciting person in the world – and this is something that Buckley’s voiceover, which fills a lot of the film, makes note of. It’s this voiceover that throughout much of these scenes the viewer is able to connect with, it’s the through world into most of the film’s events.
Much of the film is made up of extended scenes and moments. Aside from the conversations in the car there are almost real-time scenes around a dinner table or at a roadside ice cream shop. Through this the realism and humanity of the film is brought through, especially the way that it delves into relationships. However, unlike the likes of Anomalisa and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, both of which were penned by Kaufman, there’s a slight horror tone to the film. As things become warped and twisted within the home of Jake’s parents the look into the relationship seems to be put aside for the sake of looking at eerie events within the household, and the behaviour of Thewlis and Collette’s exceptionally performance characters. Not just their off the cuff comments such as “Billy Crystal’s a nancy” or their loud somewhat raspy gasp filled laughs that linger for a while after the joke respectively but their general physicality and appearance that seems to change, evolve and devolve around every corner; as if each new room is in a different time period.
It’s fair to say that there’s a lot being said within Kaufman’s screenplay, and his direction style – assisted by the dimly lit cinematography of Cold War cinematographer Łukasz Żal. At some points it feels as if he’s commentating on the state of Hollywood, or even the film industry as a whole, and the way that it treats relationships. The ideals that they present of a female mindlessly following and supporting the male, passively observing their accomplishments in multiple genres, despite what may happen. The extent to which this commentary comes into play is mostly in the very latter stages of the piece, as the film’s focus screams to herself, after the torment that has come beforehand, “it’s hard to say no… it’s easier just to say yes”. Yet, such readings and themes come, as already mentioned, later in the film. Before then there’s a gradually drawn out tangle of ideas and situations, some working better than others. When in the car things are slow, it’s hard to engage with them – perhaps that’s the point? But when in the farm grounds, at the ice cream shop and almost anywhere else there’s a bit more detail and energy to the piece, even if everything happening is a bit of a confusing mind-twist.
Once everything is over and done with, or as could be perceived to be the case anyway, it’s sure to take a while for everything to sink in. It might not exactly be something that can be properly comprehended and understood, but there’s enough detail and style in there, attaching to unconventional styles of horror and beyond;. All of this done in a way that only Charlie Kaufman can, almost always looking at the idea of human reactions; emotion, or perhaps lack of emotion. Each scene assisted by top performances from each member of the small but stunning cast. Led by a sublimely subdued performance from Jessie Buckley, capturing the tone of each scene and moment almost perfectly; even if the viewer’s connection isn’t quite as present in that moment she still manages to excel and capture the true essence of the moment, getting across what her character is thinking, even if her voice sounds like she’s hiding this by demonstrating other feelings to those around her. You might not know what’s happening during each scene or be able to connect with the film at all times, although during some of the genuinely scary isolated farmhouse scenes especially you’re probably not meant to, but you’ve always got Buckley’s performance to rely on to get across the feelings of each scene while still allowing you to make up your own mind as to the reason behind what’s happening, if you can find one within the sometimes empty drifting conversations and monologues.
While Charlie Kaufman’s traditional themes are certainly present within his latest observation of relationships and the human mental condition it isn’t his most accessible or engaging feature. The cast are on top form but the connection isn’t always there during some of the more isolated sequences, even if the unique scare factor and viewpoint are effective in others.