I saw it twice, then listened to the book on Audible. It is a masterpiece I think and the most inaccessible of Kaufman’s movies. It’s rare when a film asks so much of me and expects me to either keep up or give up. It’s even more rare to accept the challenge and dig in through the various layers and existential questions it poses. This succeeded in doing both and drove me to research it more. I cannot remember the last time I did this. What is it about? It’s (some spoilers here coming up) tough to really decipher everything in the movie. In the book it is made pretty clear what is happening by the end of it and the movie diverges a bit there.
For the movie, I mostly figured that what we are watching is the old man janitor/Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) fantasy of sorts from the first time i saw the movie and confirmed it on second viewing. This makes the middle horrific parent visit so essential to the film. Jake and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) are on their way to visit his parents’ home through a snowstorm. It is at the home where it becomes clear…well kind of clear that the girlfriend is possibly not there. The phone calls from herself and the bizarre messages are confusing but also emphasize the surreal nature of that whole sequence and make us question everything we assumed about the couple. I admit there is no way to decipher what the caller is saying without reading the book though. By the time we leave the house, well, we are no longer under the illusion that anything is taking place in what we would think of as reality.
It adds to that Kaufman’s choice of how to film them in long stretches in the car with the wipers on, sometimes from the outside of the car. It’s unnerving and creepy. Jake is having this elaborate alternative life fantasy and he centers it on having his parents meet his girlfriend. Part of that fantasy is the house he grew up in, still lives in as an old man, his long gone dog and his parents. His parents, who might have liked Lucy or Yvonne or whatever her name might be. Her name changes, her occupation shifts because she can be anyone he might have met. Maybe she is the girl he met all those years ago at trivia night. what might have been had he actually dated her. Yet he could not help but have his troubled subconscious and horrible memories of his childhood (maggot pig, creepy basement, life on the farm…) how his parents gotten old (down to his mom’s toe nail!) and died from intruding on the nice visit fantasy.
The final third, after the visit is where we go to the “high school” and everything unraveled in a mix of memory, reality and fantasy. We are living through Jake’s final moments during most of the movie I think where he is looking back at his life and what might’ve been. It’s a somber and depressing movie with excellent performances and unique directorial style. It’s not for everyone but I loved it.