”I’m thinking of ending things”. These are the oft-repeated sequence of words in the interior monologue of Jessie Buckley’s Young Woman, the complex ostensible protagonist of the utterly confounding new picture from super-maverick Charlie Kaufman. It appears to be a relatively straightforward phrase in the beginning, but it serves as one of many things that take on increasing opacity during the mind-stretching journey that has been baffling the daylights out of viewers since its release last Friday.
We are introduced to The Young Woman as she climbs into a car driven by Jake (Jesse Plemons), her boyfriend of 6 weeks who is taking her to meet his parents for the first time. From the outset, we are immersed in something that doesn’t feel quite right. Jake veers between giddy anticipation and quietly tense, somniferous ramblings about a slew of seemingly disconnected subjects, including his love of poetry and musicals (The Young Woman is also an aspiring poet), The Young Woman’s university course on quantum mechanics, references to highbrow art and a generally plaintive reflection on existence itself. Their conversation feels awkward and dreamlike, as if they are two introverts having their first date and/or under the influence of some delirium-inducing substance, the uncanny feeling compounded by the virtually endless drive along snow-coated rural roads. All the while, The Young Woman’s narration informs us that she’s been ‘thinking of ending things’ pretty much since the start, even though Jake is a relatively sweet and smart guy. So far, so peculiar.
Upon arrival at Jake’s childhood home in the middle of Oklahoma farmland, things become exponentially weirder. His parents (David Thewlis & Toni Collette) are highly eccentric and abnormal, ensuring bizarre and stilted introductions and dinner-table conversation in which Jake’s uncomfortable proclivity for mini-tantrums surfaces. We are instinctively fearful for The Young Woman, especially when the evening proceeds into increasingly surreal corners. Jake addresses her by several different names and gives wildly divergent accounts of how they met, and time itself darts rapidly back and forth in oneiric fashion. Even stranger is The Young Woman’s reaction, her blase attitude toward the oddities occasionally interrupted by her annoyance that Jake doesn’t seem fazed about getting her back home early enough, a busy tomorrow demanding a generous amount of sleep.
Amid this deeply nightmarish farce, we are given periodic glimpses into the quotidian humdrum of an elderly high-school janitor (Guy Boyd), quietly toiling away in silence, watching films at lunch and seemingly content to do his work and enjoy his own company. At face value, it doesn’t even suggest the most tenuous connection with events that we’ve witnessed so far, and his unremarkable daily routine seems an infinitely more preferable experience to the unearthly events that beset The Young Woman. As these parallel narratives edge toward their conclusion, the phrase ‘nothing is at it seems’ might be a trite description if there were not such exactitude in applying it.
Where to begin with this one? I offer no exaggeration or hyperbole when I say that it’s probably the most bewildering film I’ve ever seen (yes, even more so than Kaufman’s other work or anything Lynch or Jodorowsky ever did), but far from being a detraction, I found its virtually impenetrable phantasmagoria and intellectual references to be emotive and stimulating. Admittedly, I’ve never read the eponymous source novel by Iain Reid, and subsequent research has informed me that it is predicated on rather shocking twists that Kaufman elects to subdue in his cinematic rendering. Having allowed the film to percolate in light of these discoveries, it has imbued me with a more substantive appreciation for the content, and while one could make the argument that a film isn’t successful if it leaves viewers utterly nonplussed, I felt immersed and entranced by its mystery.
Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is very intimate with regards to Buckley, the camera steadfastly fixed upon her face during many scenes of melancholy exposition. It heightens what I’ve come to feel is the film’s triumvirate emotional spectrum of cosiness, dread and frustration. The dialogue traverses some wildly unexpected territory (I certainly never saw an in-depth discussion of Pauline Kael’s thoughts on A Woman Under The Influence coming), and the stimulation that I felt operated in unison with anxiety and aggravation. This is not a horror film, and it is unfairly erroneous for it to have been marketed as such because it beckons the viewer to anticipate terrors that never actually unfold. It is certainly eerie, but the facets that make it so do not culminate in a tale of scares but rather one of sadness and regret. It’s a surrealist psychological drama if we’re going to slap any labels on it, so if you’ve yet to see it and were expecting a horror, apologies for the disappointment.
Every performance is nothing short of robust, particularly that of Buckley. She and Plemons have chemistry that generates an otherworldly awkwardness, conveying the impression that every utterance from either is going to kill the conversation or cause an eruption of tears or fury. The entire sequence at Jake’s family home is the most uncomfortable slice of domestic mindf***ery I’ve seen on screen, not least because of the surrealist elements within. Though I may have finished the film no more edified than when I started it, the formidable acting and narrative allusions are nothing short of resonant and memorable.
It’s a vagarious, bizarre and confusing picture, and it’s currently polarising the hell out of filmgoers, but I can personally see it becoming something of an arthouse cult classic after it has prompted a slew of people to purchase the book and continually rewatch for clues. There are reminiscences of Mulholland Drive here, and like that film, it inspired a pensive existential reverie owing to its commentary on life through the conduit of dreams and memories. It has by no means rocketed into favourites territory (I’m unsure if I’ll even watch it again), but it unequivocally deserves to be seen at least once.