‘Being John Malkovich’ is the kind of film that doesn’t come around a lot. With the combined genius of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman, the film focuses on John Malkovich, the tunnel that leads into his head, and the myriad of people who try to enter it and give a different meaning to their lives. Through several motifs and allegories, the film delves deep into the psychological depths of a human mind, asking the audience to analyze themselves by putting themselves in the shoes of one or all characters of the movie. It comments on the need to be someone else, a man’s lust for fame, and the horror of a person completely losing themselves to someone else. The ending packs an unsettling punch of its own. Here’s what it means. SPOILERS AHEAD
Craig Schwartz is a puppeteer who wants to be known and celebrated for his art. However, with no luck in sight, he relents to his wife Lotte’s wishes and decides to get a job. He finds one at Lestercorp, where he falls in love with a co-worker named Maxine. He also discovers a secret tunnel at his workplace, which allows him to inhabit the mind of actor John Malkovich, for fifteen minutes. When he tells Maxine about it, she decides to use it as a means to make money. When Lotte tries it, she realizes that she is more comfortable in the skin of a man. Things get complicated when Lotte falls in love with Maxine, who reciprocates the feeling, but only when she meets Lotte as Malkovich. To get what he wants, Craig takes over Malkovich’s mind, acquiring complete control over it.
The Ending: What happens to Craig?
At the beginning of the film, we meet Craig as a master puppeteer who wants to have more exposure for his art. He dreams of performing his masterpiece to the audience and to be revered by them. He never finds it as himself, but success comes to him as John Malkovich. While the others only get to stay inside Malkovich’s head for fifteen minutes, Craig’s puppeteering skills allow him to take complete control of the actor and take over his life. With Malkovich’s face and name attached to him, he gets everything that he always wanted. The girl he had coveted so much finally approves of him, the genius that he so desperately wanted to be celebrated gets its due under the guise of Malkovich. All the things for which Craig had been rebuked and ridiculed before now become the things that prove what a maverick he is. He also gets to employ his talents on the level that no other puppeteer has before. He gets to pull the strings of a human. But this success comes with an expiry date.
Eight months later, while Craig’s career soars, things get bad between him and Maxine. It is revealed that she is still in love with Lotte, and perhaps she also wants to distance herself from Craig because he has turned Malkovich into himself too. This proves that no matter what happens to him, no matter how his appearance changes, or how successful he becomes, he will, at his core, remain the same, rather vain person. While the rumors about his and Maxine’s growing distance take flight, we find Lotte, Dr. Lester, and their group keeping an eye on Craig.
Previously, Dr. Lester had explained to Lotte that a couple of centuries ago, he had stumbled upon the mysterious tunnel that would lead him to the mind of someone else. Through this, he found a way to stay alive forever. (This also explains why Dr. Lester thinks he has a speech impediment when he clearly doesn’t. The body doesn’t have the impediment but the mind that inhabits it must have had it in their original form.) All he needed to do was to take over the mind of the other person just when they are about to turn forty-four. He has to enter the tunnel before the clock hits twelve because after then, the tunnel will no longer go into the brain of the same person. It will be transferred to the next in line, i.e., an infant. And entering the mind of an infant would lead to the permanent caging of someone like Dr. Lester in the baby’s mind.
What he does now is to follow a person for the forty-four years of their life, to stay in touch with all the things they might need to remember later. When the time comes, he enters the tunnel and gets to become that person, enforcing entire control over them. Along the way, he has also met other people, the ones he has grown to like, whom he offers a ride-along in the mind of the chosen person. In this set-up, all the personalities can exist within the same brain, with Dr. Lester taking the charge. As for the original personality, it is pushed into the subconscious, or most likely, becomes caged inside their own body, never to gain control again.
In the eighth month, as John Malkovich’s forty-fourth birthday draws closer, Dr. Lester, his friends, and Lotte become impatient to find a way to throw Craig out of Malkovich’s brain. They abduct Maxine and holding her at gunpoint, threaten Craig. Things don’t go as planned, and when it looks like Craig won’t give up, Lotte decides to kill Maxine, in “if you aren’t mine, you’ll be none’s” manner. In the end, the women reconcile when Maxine reveals to Lotte that the child that she is pregnant with is hers, not Craig’s. Declaring their love for each other, they leave behind Craig and move on with their lives. This comes as a shock to Craig, who, by now, has relinquished control over Malkovich to save Maxine. When she leaves him, he decides to go back inside Malkovich and get her back.
What Craig doesn’t know is that the deadline to get inside the actor’s brain has passed. Malkovich is now overtaken by Lester and his friends. But according to plan, Craig enters the tunnel, and where does that lead him? Rewind a bit and get to the part where Lotte starts chasing Maxine, determined to kill her. Dr. Lester tells her to not kill Maxine because should their plan with Malkovich not pan out, his child would be the next in line to serve as their vessel. So, when the portal closes on Malkovich, it opens to Emily, Maxine and Lotte’s child. As Lester had explained, his entry at the wrong time leads Craig to baby Emily’s mind and he gets trapped there forever.
As opposed to the complete control that he had exercised over the actor’s mind, he has no control whatsoever on Emily, and this is where the movie hits its irony. Imagining Craig caged inside Emily’s brain invokes the image of a caged Lotte, forced to say whatever Craig wanted her to say to Maxine while being helpless about his actions. For a brief time, he had puppeteered his wife the same way he puppeteered Malkovich. But now, he has been caged. He can no longer exert any control over anything. The talent and art that he had been so proud of is completely yanked away from him. He can no longer puppeteer anything; control is not his to have anymore.
The only hope for him is perhaps when Emily turns forty-four and Lester and his friends (which also includes Charlie Sheen now) break into her mind. Things can go two ways from here. In the first case, when Lester and Co. enter Emily’s mind, they will put her in a cage, which will either allow Craig to come out of it or he will have to share the space with Emily, much like Lotte had shared her cage with Elijah, the chimpanzee. Another scenario is that Lester and Co don’t get to invade Emily’s mind because it is already occupied. Like it happened in the case of Malkovich, Lester refused to go inside when Craig was still there. Things could be affected similarly in Emily’s case. What if, one cage of mind can have only one prisoner? With Craig already in prison, Lester and Co will not be able to suppress Emily and they will most likely get lost in her subconscious.
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