Charlie Kaufman's movies are radical therapy – Polygon

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From Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Orion and the Dark, his films process anxiety and self-hatred
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When Spike Jonze’s oddball fantasy movie Being John Malkovich was first released back in 1999, people weren’t sure what to make of it. While the film was well-received, garnering praise for its “endearingly nutty” and “brilliantly inventive” writing, it also left viewers confused about what to make of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, at the time known solely for his work on TV comedies like The Edge and The Dana Carvey Show.
Since Being John Malkovich’s release, Kaufman has continued to baffle and impress viewers, as every movie he writes or directs is different from the last: Adaptation; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Synecdoche, New York; Anomalisa, and his 2020 Netflix nightmare scenario I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Fans and critics have tried to pin down Kaufman’s movies using terms like “surreal” or “meta,” but focusing on the structure rather than the content of his work is the wrong approach. It’s more revealing to consider the shared theme that ties all Kaufman’s films together, including his latest, the animated Netflix kids’ movie Orion and the Dark.
Charlie Kaufman’s protagonists have one crucial commonality: their shared mental health struggles. Depression, anxiety, obsessiveness, low self-esteem, and other mental health issues have been key components in all of Kaufman’s movies, explored through protagonists who each have different ways of coping. Whether it’s the driving conflict (in Anomalisa or I’m Thinking of Ending Things) or just a byproduct of the journeys they undergo (in Being John Malkovich or Adaptation), it’s a consistent, prominently featured theme in Kaufman’s work. Having mental health issues is an inescapable fate for a Kaufman protagonist, and at some point, they will inevitably be forced to confront these issues whether they like it or not, often with little success.
At first glance, Orion and the Dark’s protagonist doesn’t seem to have a lot in common with the sad, middle-aged white men at the center of Kaufman’s other films. But given the film’s status as Kaufman’s most child-friendly and approachable film to date, it’s surprising how clearly it fits the pattern: Orion suffers from crippling anxiety. He’s afraid of literally everything, especially the dark, and that fear dominates his life.
Orion and the Dark isn’t as grim and existentially terrifying as Kaufman’s other films — it’s based on a children’s picture book, and aimed at impressionable young kids. But Orion is still fundamentally a Charlie Kaufman protagonist. He fits all three of the criteria that link Kaufman’s meta-narrative odysseys.
First, the typical Charlie Kaufman protagonist is insecure and constantly questions their worth or place in the world. Because of these internal barriers, they often feel distant from their communities, and unable to connect with anyone. This lack of socialization and security is one of the first things Orion mentions in Orion and the Dark.
Like other Kaufman protagonists, Orion struggles with unresolved romantic feelings. He has a crush on his classmate Sally, but his anxiety makes it impossible to sit down next to her, much less go on the school field trip with her. Even when she directly asks him to sit with her, he can’t find the courage to respond.
Orion shares his loneliness and isolation with Anomalisa protagonist Michael Stone, who’s alienated from the world because, in his view, everyone he meets has the same face and voice. His condition becomes so overwhelming that he has a breakdown while giving a speech at a conference, and he’s unable to recognize anyone at the surprise party his wife throws him at his house near the end of the film. Similarly, Being John Malkovich protagonist Craig Schwartz and Synecdoche, New York protagonist Caden Cotard both experience vocal anxiety after their wives alienate and resent them, and their loneliness leaves them questioning their place as artists and human beings.
Second, Kaufman puts his main characters in strange, unsettling circumstances or environments that only they and a small group of people seem to acknowledge. Kaufman’s characters live in almost-realistic settings that inevitably feature absurd, logic-defying, fantastical elements. Those settings underline plot points or worldbuilding that inevitably drive the protagonists, willingly or by force, to confront their internal issues.
Orion’s fear of the dark is so extreme that Dark itself attempts to prove to the kid that he isn’t scary and plays an important role in the world. With the help of Dark and other Night Entities, Orion confronts one of his biggest fears and comes one step closer to facing the others. Kaufman’s other films have equally traumatic-yet-therapeutic, absurd devices, like the portal into John Malkovich’s mind in Being John Malkovich, which leads Craig to the sense of self-confidence and self-worth he lacked for so long.
The memory-erasing procedure from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Caden Cotard’s play and artistic recreation of Manhattan from Synecdoche, New York, and Lisa Hesselman being the only person who doesn’t have an identical face and voice from Anomalisa all play similar roles, forcing or luring the protagonists to confront their flagging sense of adequacy and connection.
Finally, the meta-narrative that all Kaufman protagonists navigate blur the lines between reality and fantasy to such an extent that it’s difficult for the audience (and sometimes, the characters) to discern what is real and what isn’t. While his movies’ surreal elements sometimes initially shock his protagonists, they easily fall into these meta-narratives and become adjusted to their new “worlds.” Depression and social anxiety are such dominant aspects in these characters’ lives that they eventually start warping reality.
That’s particularly true in Adaptation, as throughout the film, tellingly named protagonist Charlie Kaufman struggles to adapt The Orchid Thief book in a way that doesn’t rely on Hollywood tropes and clichés. As Charlie’s creative struggles become more extreme, his anxiety consumes his mental well-being, causing a series of surreal confrontations. By the third act, Charlie inserts himself into The Orchid Thief’s story, and the film becomes everything he originally didn’t want in his script: Hollywood schlock filled with drugs, gun fights, car chases, and emotionally manipulative deaths.
Similarly, Orion and the Dark reveals early in the film that the main plot involving Orion and Dark is also a story adult Orion is telling his young daughter, Hypatia. And when Hypatia becomes unsatisfied with Orion’s story, she inserts herself into it to help him fix the mistakes he made. Orion nicely fits into all three criteria for a Kaufman character. But there is one significant difference between him and past Kaufman protagonists: He gets a straightforward, uncompromised happy ending.
When Kaufman writes a conclusion, he typically takes two different paths. Path A involves an unhappy, depressing ending where the protagonist is left in a worse state than they were in the beginning (Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Anomalisa, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things). Path B hints at a sliver of hope for the protagonist, though it’s ultimately bittersweet, compromised, or even fatal. (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York). Orion and the Dark doesn’t take either of those paths. The film instead forges a new one for Orion, thanks to Hypatia’s influence.
Hypatia is the positive force Orion needs to motivate himself to conquer his fears. Thanks to his future daughter, Orion overcomes his social anxiety — an achievement few of Kaufman’s other characters could claim. Orion accepts that fear will always be a part of his life, but he learns how to stop it from controlling his life and preventing him from indulging in the joys of living.
Only one other character in the Charlie Kaufman canon has an ending as upbeat and hopeful as Orion’s: Charlie Kaufman from Adaptation. By the end of the film, Charlie not only successfully overcomes his writer’s block and finishes his script, he says he’s “filled for the first time with hope,” that he’s refusing to allow his anxiety and insecurities to take hold of his life anymore.
Kaufman himself has said, “There aren’t a lot of happy endings in my movies. I think maybe there aren’t a lot of happy endings in life.” And yet he grants two notable exceptions, for a fictionalized version of himself and a child protagonist.
Perhaps Kaufman sees a bit of himself in Orion and wants to give him the same sense of hope he gave his fictional counterpart from Adaptation. After all, they are both socially awkward characters who are overwhelmed by their fears and insecurities, struggle with romance, and eventually overcome their issues after falling into a meta-narrative involving an outside character inserted into the story. Either way, both movies show that Charlie Kaufman’s protagonists don’t always have to let their mental health issues swallow them up.
That said, Kaufman’s films aren’t linked purely because they feature the same kind of protagonist. His filmography is connected because his projects all center on the same subject, and the characters are gateways into that shared theme. According to Kaufman, “I think that it’s probably not possible — or even desirable — if you’re writing something for it not to be autobiographical. I mean — what else ya got? If you’re gonna be true, then you have to put yourself in your work. I try to.” Each film Kaufman writes and directs is directly inspired by his personal life, and a way of him tapping into, examining, and processing his own issues.
His movies have the same takeaway but not the same focus, because they each came out at different points in Kaufman’s life. His struggles with mental health may remain constant, which is why it has become a shared theme in his filmography. But Kaufman’s exact commentary on the subject changes from film to film because, like everyone else, his life has been filled with ups and downs.
Kaufman makes movies for himself, writing what he knows and then giving it a unique spin, and that’s exactly why his work remains influential. Like any great artist, he finds ways to let audiences connect with the work he’s doing. When you strip away all the meta-surrealism, introspective writing, and shared structure, you have a series of stories about a man coping with his own anxieties. Movies like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and Orion and the Dark may be incredibly personal stories for him. But they’re also personal stories for practically everyone else on the planet.







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