A riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. Synecdoche New York (2008) is a masterpiece straight out of the mind of Charlie Kaufman, the genius behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). This is a film where the lines between reality and illusion are increasingly blurred, especially when it comes to reflecting on one’s own reality. Its synopsis is as follows:
A theatre director struggles with his work, and the women in his life, as he creates a life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse as part of his new play. (source)
As aforementioned, this film can be quite confounding, but this is completely forgivable as the quality is so high. Synecdoche New York consists of layers upon layers of story as we follow theatre director Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his interactions with the many women in his life, as he sorts through his creative output and his life, and designs his magnum opus; a play within a play (within a play?). Where this film becomes especially awesome is when the lines become blurred between what is the play, and what is Caden’s real life. The film is peppered with moments of surreality and nonsense, humour and extreme darkness. It is the ultimate game of psychological tug-of-war.
Synecdoche New York boasts an ensemble cast tour de force. There are so many impressive actors who show off stellar performances, most notably being the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose powerful performance in this is an absolute show-stealer. He deftly wades through the heaviest of content in a way that is so approachable, and even when surrounded with the craziest of surrealism; he makes Caden’s situation borderline understandable on a human level. Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton and Dianne Wiest are all equally excellent as Caden’s women, each presenting as exceedingly natural despite their unnatural circumstances. I’m really not a fan of Jennifer Jason Leigh, but she was great in this also. I think with a film like this, which has the potential to be completely crazy and over the top, it is a huge benefit to the overall story that these capable actors were able to ground their characters so that they did not distract from all the craziness.
The direction is amazing. It’s not dissimilar to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in that the camera follows Caden around and just watches him. There is a good mix between tight close-ups, mid range shots, and wide angle shots to take in an entire environment. This kind of direction further explores the film’s layered approach, as the information we see in a close-up shot is totally different to what we see in a wide angle shot; our intake of information depends on the way we see a situation, and how many times we see it. Kaufman’s style of directing is stunning and powerful, and in conjunction with Frederick Elme’s masterful cinematography, the result is mindblowing. The content, imagery and ideas in Synecdoche New York are cerebral and highly complex. But the direction perfectly reflects how this information should be organised.
What I love about this film is that it’s an utter mystery. When I watched this for the first time, it was with a friend of mine who had already watched it three times, and once the film ended he instantly said, “Yep, I would still watch it again”. The layered performances, the rewards for rewatching, and the unfolding nature of the story ensure that this is a film you will never forget. I’m not entirely sure I understood everything on the first watch, but I am really looking forward to the re-watch and putting more of the puzzle pieces together. It’s an absolute masterpiece.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!