The thing I like best about this film is Charlie Kaufman’s fearlessness. He doesn’t really care if fans of the book complain about the ways it deviates from the story. He shrugs at the thought that the movie is stuffed with intellectualism that will turn off most casual viewers of movies on Netflix. He lets an actress virtually unknown — Jessie Buckley, who I hope wins an Oscar nomination for her work — to American audiences carry the film. And then he gives her character an emotional sendoff with about 15 minutes to go and, literally, replaces her with a ballet dancer.
Going back to that point about the book, it’s in the ending where the movie makes its most radical break from Iain Reid. The novel takes the form of a horror story in the final act — the young woman is stalked by the janitor and cannot find Jake, he closes in ever closer … until it all ends in what amounts to a triple suicide, the janitor violently taking his life and leaving behind a series of notebooks that tell the story.
Kaufman does not give the janitor the authorship of this piece. In fact, through numerous asides in the journey, he makes it clear that the janitor is just another spectator of the spectacle, that all three characters — flesh and blood or product of his imagination — are products of schizophrenia, leaving it up to us, the viewer, to decide if that affliction occurs at the personal level or at a deeper cultural one.
Because Kaufman is aiming for something higher than Reid, he decides to do a 180 on the horror story and present the idealized ending of the Jake/young woman story as a ballet. Two thinner, more athletic people take the place of Jake and the young woman (performed by Ryan Steele and Unity Phelan) and begin a beautiful dance to Jay Wadley’s Debussy-like score. Peter Walker’s choreography is impeccable, as is Lukasz Zal’s camerawork. Too much of the film relies on Netflix-style editing, but in this scene, Kaufman lets the first half of the ballet play out uncut — not until Phelan slams the first locker shut do we get a film edit.
There’s something magical about seeing dance on film — we rarely get to see it outside of musicals or movies specifically devoted to dance. The exuberance of the performance frees the audience to take a more idealized view of the characters working in perfect synchrony. For the first time in the film, we no longer see the young woman as a representation of Jake, but as a fully independent character with her own style and finesse that compliments him while he also compliments her. In dance, the couple finds a moment of perfection it would have never found in words.
This bliss is punctuated by a stylized wedding that is then interrupted by a menacing version of the janitor who tries to steal the young woman away, then stabs ballet Jake to death. For a final time, Jake and the young woman return, view the defeat of their idealized love, then take alternate paths out of the auditorium, their story complete.
Yes, they will return in a few moments in hilarious high school style makeup for a delirious coda. But that ending is much like Joe Gideon’s in “All that Jazz,” a musical number onto death, a celebration of a life that never was. Their real ending came in the ballet, and while it was the janitor who ultimately ended things, not the young woman, it was good to see a representation of that character given one last moment to dominate the stage and achieve a happiness that would always be denied her if she remained Jake’s anima.