Who is John Malkovich?

Craig Schwartz is a puppeteer in BJM (Image by Alex Yomare from Pixabay)

The film “Being John Malkovich” breaks conventions of filmmaking. Much of it takes place with characters hunched over, looking away from the camera and each other. It’s color pallet is overbearingly dark, with dimly lit sets and drab outfits. The dialogue is often complex, and the themes are depressing. The protagonist remarks, “Consciousness is a terrible curse. I think, I feel, I suffer.” This sets the tone for a film that really earns its R rating without any blood. 

The main appeal is how it displays several forms of art in one. From the perspective of cinematography, every shot is framed with clear purpose and deliberation. The relationship between the characters is relayed to the viewer by their body language and expressions as much as their dialogue. With regards to acting, John Malkovich gives an astounding performance in the eponymous role. There are also intricate demonstrations of puppeteering. The puppeteers in this film have such a great degree of control and precision it is like nothing you have ever seen before. The whole film is set to an orchestral score. The writing is also top notch. The script is surprisingly humorful. 

Another thing that makes this film stand out is it’s star studded cast. Mr. Malkovich, as himself, is definitely the star of the show. John Cusack portrays Craig Schwartz, who has many of the movies most memorable lines. Cameron Diaz plays Lottie, though you might not recognize her at first. Orson Bean is the immortal pervert Lester, many people will recall seeing him in various TV shows and movies. Charlie Sheen also makes a couple brief appearances, as himself.

Who is John Malkovich? Is he an academy award winning actor, director, producer, and fashion designer? Or, could he be a body controlled by a sinister puppeteer named Craig? No, no, clearly he is a vessel that will be inhabited by the soul of a man who discovered immortality in the early 1800s. Obviously, his consciousness is a projection being observed by a woman named Lottie inside a metaphysical void. In the movie Being John Malkovich, the answer to that question is all of the above.  

As incoherent as that may seem, the basic premise of this film is the discovery of a tunnel that leads to John Malkovich’s mind. After about 15 minutes, it spits whoever enters back out by the side of the New Jersey freeway. The person who first happens upon this portal is the aforementioned protagonist, Craig. An out of work puppeteer, Craig happens upon the portal while at work in the 7½ floor. He is married to Lottie, who owns an absurd number of animals; dogs, cats, a chimpanzee and iguanas among others. 

This movie poses a lot of food for thought. Craig ponders, “it (the portal) raises all sorts of philosophical type questions about the nature of the self and the existence of the soul. Am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich?” Being John Malkovich is a movie you have to watch multiple times. It is full of foreshadowing and irony. Unfortunately, to discuss all that it is necessary to spoil crucial elements of the plot. Sorry. Also, Trigger Warning: the film contains a depiction of Intimate Partner Violence. The following synopsis will describe that incident

Being John Malkovich is one of the most bizarre movies you will ever see. There is one scene where Craig loudly mumbles nonsense in a continuous stream of random syllables, until blurting out “Maxine!” There is also a scene where Malkovich himself enters the portal. Once inside his own subconscious, Malkovich finds himself at a restaurant with a beautiful woman. The camera pans up, and she turns out to have Malkovich’s head. Everyone else in the restaurant also has Malkovich’s head, and can say only one word, Malkovich. The real John freaks out and sprints out of the building, just in time to get spat out onto the New Jersey turnpike.

Maxine is another crucial character. She meets Craig at the orientation for people new to working at the 7½ floor. Craig immediately becomes infatuated with her, despite being married. Maxine says she “can’t think of anything more pathetic” than Craig. Eventually, he shows her the portal into Malkovich, and they start a business charging people to visit. 

This brings us to the immortal being who travels from body to body. Craig’s boss at work is a lecherous old man named Lester. Lester has been gaslighted into thinking he has a speech impediment despite speaking normally, and he is excessively horny. In a past body, he found the portal that leads to Malkovich. He is able to leave forever by taking that portal into the so-called “vessel,” in this case Malkovich. Lester himself is one of these vessels. 

Craig also shows Lottie the portal. After experiencing it, Lottie becomes obsessed with Malkovich and falls in love with Maxine. She invites Maxine over for dinner. This is ironic because Craig himself was trying to cheat on Lottie with Maxine. There is also a crucial moment of foreshadowing here where Lottie asks what Lester’s relationship to Malkovich is. Maxine is interested in Lottie, but only when Lottie is in Malkovich. Craig uses deception, the portal, and Maxine’s relationship with Malkovich to act on his feelings for Maxine. These sex scenes where various people inhabit John Malkovich’s body while he hooks up with Maxine are a lot of what earns the film its R rating. They also pose uncomfortable questions. If Craig has taken over Malkovich’s body, is Malkovich really having sex with Maxine? Is Craig tricking Maxine into having sex with him while he is in Malkovich, is that sexual assault? 

For the rest of the plot to make sense, we have to talk about the graphic depiction of domestic violence. Overcome with jealousy for Lottie’s voyeurism with Malkovich and Maxine, Craig threatens Lottie with a gun, and imprisons her in a cage with her monkey. Trapped in this cage, he forces Lottie to set up dates with Maxine via Malkovich, so that he can go instead. She escapes after the pet monkey has a PTSD flashback to trying to rescue his family who had been captured by poachers. Spurred on by this memory, he unties Lottie’s bonds and, hopefully, comes to terms with his childhood trauma. Now freed, Lottie warns Maxine that she has been hooking up with Malkovich and Craig, not Malkovich and her. Maxine doesn’t seem to care. 

Maxine tells Craig that she knows he’s in Malkovich, at which point he reveals that he has total control over Malkovich’s body. Despite Malkovich’s fear of them, Craig uses his body to have sex with Maxine. Maxine and Craig then get married, and refashion Malkovich’s career so he is now a puppeteer and not an actor. He goes on to bring puppeteering to the forefront of popular culture. Truly a strange film. 

Eventually, Lester wants to transition into his next vessel, aka Malkovich. Lottie reveals to him how that won’t be possible because Craig is in control of Malkovich. To blackmail him into leaving, Lester kidnaps Maxine and threatens to hurt her if he doesn’t leave. This works, despite being a bluff, and Lester gets to inhabit Malkovich. Maxine got pregnant shortly after her relationship with Malkovich started. She reveals to Lottie that she was in Malkovich when she got pregnant, so the kid is theirs. Lottie and Maxine then raise the kid together and Maxine ditches Craig after he leaves Malkovich for her. Craig attempts to go back into Malkovich, but instead ends up in the next vessel, which is Maxine and Lottie’s child. He is forced to watch both of his ex wives through the eyes of their child until he dies. This is definitely comeuppance for the way he treated Lottie.