The 2020 film by Charlie Kaufman is available now on Netflix. The novel by Iain Reid debuted in 2016. I have not read the novel, however I do enjoy Kaufman films and I wanted to see what he was going to do with this material. I also had no idea what this story was about.
Much like Schenectady, New York, Kaufman’s Meta on Meta on meditation on life was clearly going to come through in this new piece. The first inkling I had that this film was going to be confusing for most people was because they compared it to Schenectady. And what I love about that comparison is that I understood that film and maybe it was a little gateway into understanding how my brain works and how I process the world.
I haven’t gotten halfway through the film and I know what’s happening. Not just because I understand story structure or plot. Simply understanding these things doesn’t even help you understand a Kaufman film. The key is looking for repetition.
While many viewers might notice the characters odd behaviors, they won’t notice the changes in hairstyles that reveal some sort of time shift. The story is so tightly wound that observation, even towards the mundane, is crucial. Because no matter how much we want to live and how we want that life to be curated, the every day and ordinary experiences still lead us to the profound.
There are two stories occurring. One that we believe we are currently watching and one that will be revealed at the end.
In one moment, the Girlfriend is looking around Jake’s parent’s home and sees a picture of a young person. She believes it is her. She proclaims this aloud as Jake corrects her and says that it is him. Wouldn’t it be him, since this is his parent’s home?
There is a poem that is recited and read over again… Coming home is terrible. Whether the dogs lick your face or not. Whether you have a wife or just a wife-shaped loneliness waiting for you.
This is a recitation from the Girlfriend. From a much longer poem, which sounds like a longing for something someone does not have; or has and does not want. “I’m thinking of ending things.” The Girlfriend does not herself have a longing for a wife. So you should ask yourself, who is it that wants to fill a wife-shaped loneliness? And why does she continuously say that she is thinking of ending things? Whether it’s her relationship or eventually her life, depending upon how existential she gets.
The Girlfriend is a red-herring. We witness her confusion as the protagonist navigating a world they are unfamiliar with, upon meeting Jake’s parents for the first time. Her rumination over ending things, over wanting to leave are not her own. She is not the protagonist.
She is something to hold on to. She is a dream. Ordinary and comfortable. Company. Jake is the protagonist. He has a name and his name is said repeatedly and is more important because this is his story. So, who is living this life? Who is thinking of ending things?
Time isn’t as much a mind-f*ck as it appears. It’s how time and memory work inside the mind of an aging man; how wants and losses get folded in with hopes and dreams. The Girlfriend wants to leave from his parent’s farm, wants to get back for work, but he continuously creates situations to delay their arrival home.
We tend to delay our changes, our transformations, for want of what we already have, or don’t have yet. We sit in our regret and let time pass. We run through life so fast we think we’re experiencing more than we ever could. “It’s safe here” the janitor says, standing in the place he’s been for so long.