Circle: Spooky Story of Serial Murder

Circle 2010Directed by Michael Watkins, veteran of horror-tinged television shows like THE X-FILES, WAREHOUSE 13, MILLENNIUM and THE 4400, this story of an escaped serial killer features an impressive cast and some nicely atmospheric cinematography. Emmy nominee Gail O’Grady (NYPD Blue) plays a psychologist who aids the FBi and a team of U.S. Marshalls in hunting down James Bennett (Silas Weir Mitchell, PRISON BREAK), a criminally-insane mental patient and murderer who brutally tortures and slaughters a group of his fellow inmates. The film opens with bloody, brutal imagery: Bennett in a bleak room, surrounded by his victims who are tied to chairs formed into a circle. Most are dead, some not quite. After he manages to escape, we’re introduced to a rag-tag group of graduate students who are about to embark on a field study project for their final thesis: they’re traveling to Bennett’s childhood home to look for information and clues to his psychosis. Naturally, they don’t know Bennett has escaped and is likewise headed to his childhood home. Oh, and the house is in the middle of nowhere with no cellular phone service!
It’s a prime set-up for what ensues, and there are some intriguing twists along the way: especially when one of the graduate students turns out to have some disturbing loyalties. The film feels more like horror as it begins, then seems to shift genres to being a slick cop thriller about halfway through. Brad Tiemann’s screenplay is perhaps too ambitious, and occasionally too dialogue-driven. But I did find the story fairly absorbing, and the performances all credible and competent. Mitchell is nicely creepy as Bennett, a man oddly obsessed with Greek mythology and philosophy. Television character actor Peter Onorati gives a juicy turn as a cynical, ballsy detective determined to haul in Bennett by any means possible. This role actually made me think this film might have worked better if it had been a crime thriller about a psychopathic killer, not a horror film about a psychopathic killer. But even given a misplaced sense of genre at times, when Circle decides to be a horror film, its intense visuals and creepy mood are more than up to the task.
CIRCLE (2010, direct to video). Directed by Michael W. Watkins. Written by Brad Tiemann. Cast: Gail O’Grady, Silas Weir Mitchell, America Olivo. Jason Thompson, Michael DeLuise, Peter Onorati, Erin Reese, Kinsey Packard, Erin Foster, James Francis Kelly III, Rita Taggart, Will Stiles, Ryan Doom

Never Let Me Go: A Speculative Pastoral

neverletmegoposterYou’d think that most films trying to tell the story of the spectre of widespread human cloning for organs might feel like horror films, or at least like science fiction. The technology and the desire seem to be there: the will, so far, is not. But Mike Romanek’s film, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly-acclaimed novel (adapted by Alex Garland, who wrote 28 Days Later), presents this story as a reluctant, cautionary pastoral, as if it’s already a shadowy facet of society, or about to be; in England, at least.
The film is sparsely narrated by Cathy H. (the superb Carey Mulligan, Oscar nominee for An Education). As the film begins, Cathy tells us she is a “carer” whose time is running out. She stands by a hospital bed, looking down at Tommy (Andrew Garfield, seen most recently in The Social Network), a childhood friend who is on his third ”donation” and about to “complete.” The special lexicon used in this cowardly new world is subtle and innocuous, but the implications of it are horrific.
But before we go any deeper into the story’s present horrors, Cathy takes us back in time, to when she, Tommy and friend Ruth (played as a teenager and adult by Keira Knightley) were enrolled in Hailsham (the title of the film’s first chapter), a school in a country setting that looks for all intents and purposes like any other English school for children without parents. It’s grey granite, square and somewhat imposing: a cross between Jane Eyre’s orphanage and Hogwarts, perhaps. Set amid bucolic rolling hills and meadows, all feels normal here. The children are happy and healthy, and are told by their head mistress (Charlotte Rampling) that they are special and must take care of themselves. One day while playing outdoors, Tommy, an emotional and occasionally anti-social youth, is afraid to retrieve the ball when it bounces beyond the gates. A new teacher, Miss Lucy (played by Oscar winner and Mike Leigh veteran Sally Hawkins) asks Cathy and Ruth why Tommy wouldn’t get the ball, and Ruth relates a story that children who have ventured off the grounds have been found in the woods, with their hands and feet cut off. A few days later, Miss Lucy addresses the children during an assembly at which no other adults are present. She tells the children that they’re being raised for one purpose only, and their lives will not be like other young people’s. Shortly after they reach age 18, they will begin to undergo operations to harvest their major organs. The children, barely twelve years old, receive this news quietly. A few days later, Miss Lucy has departed.
The film’s second chapter is entitled “The Cottages,” where Cathy, Ruth and Tommy are sent to live at age 17 in the early 1980s. Other young donors from other schools live there, and one young couple tells stories of the “outside” where the three Hailsham students have never been. One day they visit a neighboring town and, unable to figure out what to order from a menu, they all order the exact same thing. The young couple says they’ve heard about “deferrals,” where young donors in love may be granted a few extra years together before they begin donations. Shortly after it’s clear Ruth and Tommy are sleeping together. Cathy is dismayed, her secret feelings for Tommy unexpressed but obvious to everyone. Shortly after, she opts to begin training to become a “carer,” or a person who acts as a personal caregiver to a donor through the duration of their “donations.”
What follows is sad, unspeakably horrifying, and eerily plausible. The donor program is apparently widespread throughout England, and accepted by everyone. There is no real explanation for why the young people don’t simply try to escape, although they appear to have electronic identification chips embedded in their wrists. One interesting choice the film makes it to de-emphasize the contemporary controversy over surveillance: in today’s England, these young people would find it hard going to elude the many cameras, hidden and otherwise, that now exist throughout the nation.
never let me go: Keira Knightley, What makes this film so haunting is not simply its frightening take on our near future (treating as if it’s the recent past): it’s also in the film’s gorgeous photography and dreamy music. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel (Rudo y Cursi, Lars and the Real Girl, Capote) shows us an England steeped in idyllic nostalgia, its soft landscapes and misty lighting seemingly too gentle for such cruel practices. Rachel Portman’s score is also wonderfully effective: never intrusive, but moving and appropriately dark.
The cast is letter-perfect, particularly Miss Mulligan as Cathy, who has little to say but whose gamine face is a miracle of subtle expression. Andrew Garfield is stunning as Tommy, a docile but angry young man whose eyes become increasingly shadowed with betrayal and disappointment. Garfield is a versatile young actor who gets better every time I see him. Keira Knightley is also very fine, showing us Ruth’s complex motivations through the expressions of a girl whose powers of manipulation came from a world too small to contain her. She’s more passionate than Cathy and Tommy combined, but weaker-willed than either, beaten down by the inescapable awareness of a life that will end before she’s really lived it. If the film has a metaphor accessible to those of us who can’t imagine state-sanctioned compulsory organ donation, that may be it: life is short, and nearly always ends before we’re ready.
NEVER LET ME GO (2010). Directed by Mark Romanek. Screenplay by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Cast: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkin, Kate Bowes Renna, Hannah Sharp, Christina Carrafiell

The Road (2009)

Harrowing trip into a bleak nuclear winter of the future offers a cautionary tale for today.

The Road (2009)John Hillcoat’s film of Cormac McCarthy’s widely-praised novel (adapted for the screen by Joe Penhall) presents what may well be one of the bleakest and most terrifying stories ever told on the big screen. THE ROAD follows the harrowing post-apocalyptic journey of a father and son, named simply “Man” and “Boy” (played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, respectively). The nature of the apocalypse is never described (nor does the novel explain it any more clearly than the film), but there is neither vegetation nor animals, and the landscape is covered in grey ash. It’s perpetually cloudy or raining, and bitterly cold. People are filthy and hollow-eyed, with ashen skin and torn fingernails, starving, homeless. The Man and the Boy are traveling on foot, pushing their meager belongings in a cart, heading vaguely south, determined to avoid another northern winter. They’re on foot not only because there is so little fuel and the roads are littered with abandoned cars and wrecked semis, but also because being on foot lets them hide easily, and in this post-disaster landscape, kindness and compassion have vanished as surely as apple blossoms and pizza.
Charlize Theron appears in flashback sequences; she is the “Woman” to Man and Boy, a wife and mother who gives birth the same night that the world turns upside down. After a few years, during which, we must assume, food has become scarce and daily existence has become dangerous, she determines that suicide is the only way out for her family. She says that eventually “they” (referring to the apparently-ubiquitous roving bands of murderous thugs: martial law gone real, real bad) will hunt them down, rape her, rape her son, and then kill and eat all three of them. Learning her husband has onlytwo bullets left, she is furious that this plan can’t work, and walks off into the night, alone, after telling her husband to travel south, as they can’t survive another winter where they are. The Man tearfully begs her to stay, but she refuses, emotionless and resigned to her decision. She clearly doesn’t want to die a victim, and yet it’s almost implausible that she could avoid such a fate. The Man has occasional dreams of her, lit with soft, golden light, full of the warm colors that have been drained out of the world in which he now lives.
For this world is a decidedly brutal one: early on the Man and the Boy meet a band of thugs traveling on a big truck, checking abandoned cars for fuel, searching for food. They try to hide but are discovered (by Garret Dillahunt, one of a number of fine actors in memorable cameos in this two-character story). With the Man’s gun trained on him, the thug offers to bring them along, says they have food, but his cracked, desperate smile and rotted teeth reveal he’s lying. He is the first of a number of bloodthirsty mercenaries the Man and Boy encounter. One terrifying sequence brings them to a seemingly deserted farmhouse that turns out to be a stronghold for a group of ruddy-faced villains who spend their days hunting. The signs are vague but unmistakable in the snowy yard: human skulls on spikes, an iron hook, freshly-split wood, a huge black cooking pot, and a pool of blood in varying shades of red, suggesting a series of slaughters over time.
It seems the primary danger in this cowardly new world is cannibalism, and the Boy understands this only too well; perhaps it’s why he’s quicker than his father to share their food with solitary strangers they meet (including Robert Duvall as an elderly, near-blind man shuffling along in shoes crafted of cardboard and plastic). Despite the Man’s insistence that they’re “the good guys” because they would never eat people, he nevertheless is slow to show compassion to others, believing his “every man for himself” approach is the only thing that will keep them alive. But keep them alive for what? There seems to be no imaginable future for them. Even a fortuitous discovery of an enormous cache of packaged foods doesn’t last. Their clothing is not sufficient to keep them warm; thieves take their survival necessities, and even if they reach the coast, it’s not clear anything will improve.
The Man has made it clear he’ll use his remaining bullet on the Boy to save him from a fate worse than fratricide; and the Boy realizes his father’s wracking cough is a harbinger of his uncertain future, when he’ll have to fend for himself. Of course, the Man is trying to give the Boy survival skills for this inevitability; but distrust and brutality don’t come naturally to a ten-year-old, even one who has been raised in a world as cruel and perilous as this one. THE ROAD suggests that human nature will adapt to anything, even the dissolution of humanity.
The film offers an ending that is perhaps more hopeful and redemptive than audiences should expect. But this brief respite from so much relentless brutality and despair cannot erase THE ROAD’s unforgettable imagery and indelible messages. It’s been said that starvation instills desperate behavior in humans. But the cannibalism of this post-apocalyptic world is not the drastic, apologetic action of a Donner Pass traveler. People in this post-disaster world seem to be steeped in aggressive cruelty and selfishness. Or, perhaps, those who still remain are so, because the compassionate and gentle were sacrificed long ago. Dreary weather, massive destruction and pillaging are nothing compared to the savagery of rape, murder, and cannibalism, and these atrocities pervade McCarthy’s vision of our possible future. If the loss of botanical beauty is heartbreaking, then seeing women and children sodomized and eaten is soul-breaking. It’s hard to see how any spiritual belief system could persist in such a world; but the Man talks of God to his Boy, and also sees his son as a god. Is it that the Boy’s innocence makes him holy? Or that blind faith in a once-powerful, all-forgiving deity is the only flicker of light in an utterly dark existence? When the everyday becomes unbearable, the survivors understandably see the beatific in the banal.
Is THE ROAD’s vision of the future plausible? It might be difficult to find an adult who has not contemplated what might happen were it all to come crashing down on us. Our world is full of nukes and chemical weapons and super-germs. One carefully-planned act of biological warfare would easily decimate the population, and one good natural disaster could shut down the pipeline of food and fuel to the world’s largest cities. We could be screwed almost instantly, and FEMA might well leave us, you’ll pardon the expression, high and dry. Cataclysm comes in many forms, and even in a wealthy, cushy country like the United States, our post 9/11, après-Katrina mindset has made disaster a plausible reality. It flashes through our minds every time we stock up on food for a winter storm, or hoard bottled water and batteries during hurricane season.
I’ve often wondered how our lives might look without the constant crutch of accessible personal technology, and how society would break down if it were taken away. What if we really had to fend for ourselves, forage for food, avoid thugs on a daily basis? Maybe some of us have even wondered what clothing we’d wear to venture out into that endless night, what weapons we’d carry, if any, what we’d do if confronted with our own imminent mortality, our humanity erased by the swift evil that descends in the wake of having our comforts and loved ones whisked away in the blink of an eye. Of course, some people in the world already live like this. THE ROAD is a murky harbinger of our future, but perhaps more urgently, a cautionary tale clearly reflecting our present.

The Road (2009)

THE ROAD (2009). Directed by John Hillcoat. Screenplay by Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Michael K. Williams, Garret Dillahunt, Charlize Theron, Bob Jennings.

Last House on the Left (2009) – Horror Film Review

Last House on the Left (2009)
I never really expected the remake of Wes Craven’s 1972 debut feature LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT  (itself a retelling of Bergman’s 1960 THE VIRGIN SPRING) to be successful as a remake. I did, however, expect it to be at least mildly successful as a horror film, and to some extent, it is. The cast is rather good, the photography often surprises with its beauty and subtlety, and I imagine it will be quite suspenseful for audiences who haven’t seen the original. I’m guessing that will be about 90% of the people who will be seeing it in theatres.
Craven’s feature was so reviled by critics and audiences alike that he essentially disowned it (he gave away his entire collection of reels including all outtakes and footage to fan and scribe David Szulkin, who later wrote a book , nay, an obsessive monograph, about it), and the film went more or less underground for years. Having an opportunity to see an “uncut” version at the Harvard Film Archive some years ago (where Szulkin was on hand to answer questions), after having last seen it grainy and edited beyond comprehension on VHS, I was reminded of this film’s power and daring content. It certainly must be said that Horror Cinema As We Know It Today would never have existed without LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and the vision Craven manifested in this oft-misunderstood and much-hated film.
Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham, who was a producer in 1972, are credited as producers this time around, so one can assume they signed off on the new version. Greek director Dennis Iliadis helms, and the screenplay is co-adapted by Adam Alleca (a former student of mine at Emerson College) and Carl Ellsworth (DISTURBIA). The original plot is relatively intact, although the body count is somewhat smaller this time around. In the remake, Krug (DEADWOOD’s Garret Dillhunt; David Hess played Krug and composed the original songs for the 1972 version) is an escaped convict who meets up with his pals Francis (BREAKING BAD’s Aaron Paul; Fred Lincoln played “Weasel” in 1972) and Sadie (Riki Lindhome; Jeramie Rain, aka Mrs. Richard Dreyfuss, in 1972), and his son Justin (the excellent Spencer Treat Clark; Marc Sheffler was “Junior” in 1972).
In Craven’s version, Krug, Weasel and Sadie are all escaped convicts; the two men are sharing Sadie and decide they need some additional women (Sadie also hints she would like a girl to play with). Krug convinces his junkie son to procure some young female victims by promising him heroin. So Junior finds Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassell) and Phyllis Stone (Lucy Grantham), strolling the streets in Manhattan before going to see their favorite band, Bloodlust, in concert, and lures them back to Krug’s hideout. The girls are kidnapped and bundled into a car trunk, and brought out to the countryside. Through an add twist of fate, they end up a few yards from Mari’s house, the last one on the left down a tree-lined dead street. Mari is eventually raped and killed right by the swimming pool in her parents’ backyard.
In the remake, the girls (Mari, played by Sara Paxton, and Paige, played by Martha Macisaac) are hanging out at the convenience store where Paige works when her friend Mari comes for her annual summer visit with her parents. They are shyly approached by Justin when he overhears them talking about pot. They follow him to Krug’s hotel room, and Mari is forced to drive them all in her parents’ SUV, which crashes on a wooded road. The girls manage to escape, briefly, but their captors gain the upper hand quickly. As with the first film, there is a brutal but, surprisingly, not very explicit rape scene. Mari is left for dead but escapes by swimming across the lake to her house. In the original, the pool represents the “virgin spring” of Bergman’s film, based on an ancient Nordic legend about a girl who is raped and murdered and later avenged by her parents, and the pure spring that appears at the place of her death. Obviously the lake is intended as a larger expression of this metaphor of renewal.
As with the original, the band of killers (with a horrified Justin in tow) ends up knocking on the door of Mari’s parents, John and Emma (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter), and are invited to spend the night in light of the bad weather and their smashed car. But in the remake, Mari has crawled her way home and is left sleeping deeply on the couch when her attackers arrive. When Justin leaves Mari’s necklace on the kitchen counter, Emma realizes their houseguests raped her daughter. Dr. and Mrs. Collingwood embark on a revenge-fuelled rampage of their own.
Responding once to criticism that the film was misogynistic, Craven replied “It’s misanthropic in every way; that’s the point.” Indeed, in 1972, the depraved and sadistic behavior of not only the kidnappers, but of Mari Collingwood’s parents as they avenge her death, was without precedent in American cinema. The remake has more than enough slow, graphic violence and gratuitous gore for the most inured horror fan. What it doesn’t have is the uncomfortable intimacy and intensity of the original. One can’t go back to 1972 and understand what it must have been like to experience this film in all its raw, verite-style impact. But it seems a shame that the remake can’t be bothered to emulate what were the original’s most memorable and affecting scenes. Sadly, this means the actors can’t have as much fun, either.
In Craven’s original version, Sadie’s vaunted lesbianism allows for a disturbing scene in which Mari and Phyllis are forced at knifepoint to make love to each other. It is tender, awkward and not titillating in the least. Later, Sadie’s offer to help the girls escape is met with a snarled insult of “Stupid dyke!” by Phyllis, thus sealing their fate. This context and its attendant character complexity is almost completely avoided in the remake. Why? Krug’s rape of Mari, circa 1972, is stunning in its animalistic depravity; portrayed simply with a close-up of their faces. Afterwards everyone, even Krug, seems ashamed. It’s a painful and empathic moment. The remake has the camera at a tasteful distance, adding an oddly bucolic, and thereby nearly idyllic, feel to the scene. Cinematographer Sharone Meir and Production Designer Johnny Breedt do an admirable job, but the subdued beauty here is almost unbearable (perhaps that’s the point). Afterwards, we see Mari’s dirt-smeared legs and Justin’s hooded, bowed head, while Krug, Sadie and Francis behave as if they’re thinking about building a campfire to toast marshmallows. Their indifference is almost harder to take than the drooling savagery of Krug was in 1972.
In what may be the most frequently-referenced scene from the original film, Weasel is seduced by Mrs. Collingwood only to have his penis bitten off during her proffered blow job. The corresponding seduction scene between Emma and Francis starts out promisingly (Aaron Paul’s leering charm recalls Jesse Pinkman, his character from BREAKING BAD, and the latter’s penchant for “MILFS”). But Francis is ultimately dispatched with a kitchen appliance, not teeth. In fact, the vengeance-fuelled violence perpetrated by the Collingwoods is very choreographed and drawn out, making it a major component of the story, instead of the unexpected and grittily satisfying epilogue it seems to provide the original.
Craven chose to shoot his 1972 film with a grainy, newsreel look for better shock value. He also intercut the farcical antics of the local police with the main action, as a sort of campy commentary on the pervasiveness and inevitability of violent crime, even for rich suburbanites. This class consciousness is an issue in the new film, but only as one of numerous false gambits of dialogue that seem to be employed to carry the film along to the next vignette of violence. Sadie, upon learning the Collingwood house is a summer residence, intones in mock wonder, “How many houses do you have?” and is met with Emma’s polite silence. But the point, of course, is not that kids from poor families end up as criminals, or that the have-nots feel justified in lashing out at the haves, but that wealthy doctors and their wives can themselves be pushed to horrific acts of murder if provoked. But this conceit has been explored so many times since Craven first invoked it, that there is no irony or even satisfaction left in it.
LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is perhaps best seen as a reminder of why remakes of classic horror films almost always fail, and badly: the elements that imbue them with fear or shock or novelty the first time around are simply no longer culturally relevant. They become kitschy artifacts, so we have to reinvent them by skewing them to fit the World As It Is Now. We forget what fear is, and begin once again to go camping or hire babysitters or visit cemeteries with impunity. We see so much blood and effluvia that hyper-real gore becomes as banal as soap scum in the bathroom. Horror films must become either arty and minimal, or extreme and self-referential, just to get a rise out of us. And as we continue to build our technologically-savvy fortresses and remove ourselves further and further from what it means to be at the mercy of the cruel natural world, we have to venture out to the theatres to be reminded that danger is as close as the woods and water behind our well-appointed homes.

Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and Mari (Sara Paxton)

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (2009). Directed by Dennis Iliadis. Screenplay by Adam Aleca and Carl Ellsworth, based on the film written and directed by Wes Craven. Cast: Garret Dillahunt, Michael Bowen, Joshua Cox, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Sara paxton, Monica Potter, Tony Goldwyn, Martha MacIsaac, Spencer Treat Clark.

This article has been slightly rewritten since its orignial posting, in order to clarify the author’s intent.


Synecdoche , New York: A Horror Chamber Piece

Synecdoche, New York (2008)When I saw this film in an upstate New York movie theatre – near Schenectady, in fact – there was a small audience, seven or eight people total. But two women sitting across the aisle from me insisted on talking through it, particularly during sex scenes (of which there are several). My quiet “sshing” had no effect, so I finally loudly asked them to please stop talking. “No” was the childish response. It’s moments like this when I understand how sweet-tempered people like myself can become suddenly aroused by rage and want to…oh, slash someone’s ears off with a straight razor. This wasn’t the multiplex, but the local arthouse – the last bastion of yahoo-free behavior, or so I have fervently wished. I found myself deeply affected by the film, and wondered if the experience might have been even more intense and memorable if it had not been marred by the rude behavior of two adult strangers who also happened to be there.
It turns out this experience was a perfect microcosmic reflection of the film’s central theme: that choices we make and events that conspire against us are often one and the same. There may or may not be anything we can do to alter their outcome, and how we choose to respond can make all the difference, and we will always look back on certain moments with anger or pain or regret, and in our desperate final hours we will remember these old hurts as potently as we remember our happiest moments.
If you have seen this film already, you may well understand why I am prompted to make such a meta-mountain out of my minor movie-going molehill. And if you haven’t, let me say that this is one of those rare films you will not be able to get out of your head, and may in fact fill you with occasional (or maybe frequent) glimmers of dread at the oddest moments.
Buried in the buzz surrounding the release of this stunning directorial debut by award-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was the news that it was supposed to have been a horror film, written for Spike Jonze to direct. Kaufman says (in an interview with Drew McWeeny from Ain’t It Cool News): “We talked about ideas and we wanted to do something that sort of wasn’t attached to the genre notion of horror, and so were talking about things that are scary in the real world, and in our lives, and anxieties and the sort of notion of being in a kind of a dream.”
Kaufman later took over as both writer and director because Jonze was committed to another project. A non-traditional horror film was the plan. But it turned into something else.
That something else is also a horror film. But not a visceral horror film full of gore and screeching violins, nor a subtle psychological terror film of the “less is more” variety. It doesn’t so much tell a horror story as create a horrified state of mind. Despite being full of unusual, implausible and highly symbolic events, this film prods us to acknowledge our mortality and smallness in a scary universe. In Kaufman’s words: “The movie follows this character for 40 years, and it’s about people’s losses and death and fear of death and intimacy and relationships. Romance and regret and struggle and ego and jealousy and confusion and loneliness and sex and loss.”
Kaufman’s Everyman is Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, perfect as a man whose body betrays him with daily incremental cruelty), a theatre director living in upstate New York (the Schenectady invoked in the title) whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. Wife Adele (Catherine Keener) is a selfish, melancholy artist who paints miniatures. Their five-year old daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) is alarmed by the bright green color of her feces one morning. After reassuring her, Caden almost immediately begins experiencing alarming physical symptoms (boils and pimples) that kick in after he bumps his head on the medicine cabinet and bleeds all over the place. His ailments turn out to be flawed autonomic response; he cannot produce tears or saliva naturally. Like Jeff Goldblum in THE FLY, he seems to accept that these grotesque changes are his own doing, but still wants to be pitied. His doctor is eerily uncaring, in that way we all have no doubt experienced. The deterioration of the body, it is implied from the Cotard family’s obsessions, sets in practically from infancy. This is MISHIMA for lifestyle neurotics. But the courageous decision to opt out at forty is replaced with the inability to accept that death is coming to all of us.
Adele takes Olive to Berlin for an art exhibit, after asking Caden to stay home from their planned month abroad. Her paintings are a hit in Europe. Meanwhile, Caden is pursued by cute box office worker Hazel (Samantha Morton), and wins a genius grant to mount a theatrical production of his choosing. He rents a cavernous space in Manhattan, casts dozens of actors, and slowly embarks upon an unknown journey into thoughtful, meandering artistic expression. He essentially recreates his own life amid the multiple scaffold-supported sets, and coaches actors to discover their own personal reality in the endless rehearsals. Schenectady, it seems, is too small to contain Caden’s actual existence and so a Greater, More Ambitious New York must be called into service.
Years seem to pass. We begin to understand Caden’s family has been away for quite some time. He becomes impotent, physically and emotionally. Hazel moves on and into a house that is perpetually aflame: an actual and metaphorical set-piece that is the first clue we are slouching towards surreality. Caden remarries: an actress (Michelle Williams) from an earlier production of Death of a Salesman in which Willy and Linda were played by young performers. Caden explains that this was to get the audience to think about how the actors themselves would one day face the same problems and pain their characters did. This casting choice made him a genius worthy of being awarded a small fortune, in the eyes of those holding the grant purse-strings.
As Caden’s theatrical project seems to flounder within its own grandiose inscrutability, he tries various gimmicks to inject it with life. Casting replacements are made: Emily Watson plays a younger version of Hazel. Tom Noonan joins the cast to play Caden himself. Dianne Wiest plays Adele’s cleaning woman (yes, in Berlin). We’re not quite sure where we are at times, and that’s all right, because Caden is also lost amid his own temporal and spatial landmarks. And then there are the freakish dreamscape images that stalk intermittently past the realistic scenes, which Caden takes in his stride, if he is even aware of them. He seeks out his long-lost daughter (flashes of olive green like the windbreaker of her kindergarten days remind us she is always on Caden’s mind), and their ultimate reunion is heartbreaking in its cold and misguided delusion. He is also, in the end, seemingly reunited with a woman who may be his mother.
Kaufman seems adamant that viewers not be hit over the head with blatant symbolism or metaphorical messaging. A burning house may just be a burning house. The sense of helplessness and smothering inevitability Caden displays conjures up our worst fears as they’ve been expressed in more traditional horror works, or in our worst nightmares: being buried alive, for example, or being pursued and finding our legs paralyzed and unable to run. Because there is a great deal of humor in the film as well, there may be a tendency for different types of filmgoers to have different experiences. (I saw DOWN BY LAW in the same theatre on two different occasions; the first time the audience was quiet and thoughtful; the second time they laughed constantly.)
But even amid the complexity of his vision, there are moments of searing simplicity and emotional speechlessness that even the most hardened loner among us cannot fail to take to heart. This is the stuff of chest-tightening fear: disease, decay, disappointment, doubt, depression, delusion, dread, death. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is a filmic memento mori that dares us to imagine our own mortality, not as a noble and unique expression of identity, but as one fragment of colored glass in humanity’s kaleidoscope. Kaufman shows us Caden’s choices and regrets within a context of artistic creativity and invites us to consider our own trajectories and tragedies.
What if our life’s story was writ large on the silver screen for unsympathetic strangers to see? What if we saw who we really are in images twenty feet high, with Dolby sound? Would we be charmed? Bewildered? Horrified? Cinema of this caliber materializes our dreams, spooling unbidden in the dark as we watch, paralyzed in our chairs. We can leave, or forget, but we cannot escape. For many of us, nothing is more terrifying than that moment at which we will one day cease to be. This fear drives us forward until we come to peace with it, or scream at it with our last breath. It catalyzes artistic creation and feeds destructive behavior. A work of cinema might be a more compelling legacy than most, because it feels alive and vital in ways books or paintings cannot. It is a fragile time capsule of dreams. So are we, in a way.
Kaufman is a psychopomp possessed of astonishing gifts. He offers up this dizzying cache of dreams, and possible outcomes, to guide us. What we do with them from here on out is up to us, in the time we have left.

Synecdoche, New York
Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) confronts the subtle horror of an empty life.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008). Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Sadie Goldstein, Tom Noonan, Peter Friedman, Charles Techman, Josh Pais, Daniel London, Robert Seay, Michaelle Williams, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis.