Synecdoche, New York: Relations of a Breakdown

Relations of a Breakdown
By Kian M.

            What is a breakdown? What defines it? What causes it? Life is a series of crossroads leading down to a singular endpoint. The concept of everything having a beginning having an end is heavily prevalent in Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York (2008), a postmodern psychological drama that focuses on ailing theater director Caden Cotard, whose latest project begins to blur the lines between reality and fiction as his mental and physical state slowly begins to deteriorate. Caden is masterfully played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who manages to hone in his character’s personality almost perfectly and craft a subdued representation of a man at a juncture in his life. While already known as a critically acclaimed character actor, Synecdoche, New York finds Hoffman crafting an entire new persona to inhabit, drawing from pieces of his own broken life as performer to craft a dark and layered visualization of what type of person Caden is. Working alongside Kaufman’s immaculate script and direction, Synecdoche, New York makes great use of placing Hoffman’s central performance as the highlight of a film by carrying the central narrative arc, honing the themes explored by the film and carrying Hoffman’s dark history of abuse and mixing it with Caden’s inner turmoil to craft something familiar, but entirely new and audacious at the same time.

Firstly, to understand Hoffman’s performance, you have to understand him as the performer. Prior to his death following an accidental overdose, Hoffman had a long history dealing with depression and substance abuse. To shield this persona from the public, Hoffman would often delve headfirst into various acclaimed performances. Drawing from this darkness within, Hoffman puts everything into his performance in Synecdoche, New York as someone who is deteriorating physically, artistically and spiritually. And that commitment that Hoffman brings to the performance is naturally fitting, because the character of Caden as a whole represents the concept of solipsism; which is essentially the drive to succeed one’s personal goal without acknowledging the desires, motivations or lives of others.

 Throughout the film, Caden is so focused on himself, whether it his own insecurities or nailing his onstage mimetic recreation of life in Manhattan, that he fails to realize the inner turmoil facing others. In one particular scene in the film, Caden refuses to give Sammy, an actor portraying Caden in the play, permission to pursue a relationship with box office worker Claire (someone who the real Caden shows romantic interest in). As a result, Sammy becomes so overwhelmed with grief that he takes his own life. It’s in this very scene, where Hoffman powerfully uses his persona and defined characteristics to fully involve himself as someone who is truly unhinged in terms of mental stability. While everyone involved with the production gathers around to mourn, Caden screams at the deceased Sammy for “getting it wrong”. He doesn’t even see Sammy as a fellow human being by this point, merely as a liability. His suicide was not a loss of life, but a hiccup in the production that created an issue of logistics for Caden. Here, Hoffman expresses a sort of rage that comes out that we see in sporadic moments to counteract the subdued depression he feels throughout the rest of the film. His slowly, plodding movement is replaced by swift, almost viciously angry movements. He teethers every word he states and directs it at Sammy’s corpse with a fervorous animosity. It may seem like Hoffman is delving into using rather simple techniques to demonstrate how his character is slowly falling apart, but it goes a long way. It demonstrates that this is man who really doesn’t have it together, not because of a lack of commitment, but because of too much commitment. And with Hoffman’s own abuse issues casting a hidden shadow over his commitment to works like Synecdoche, New York, there lies an interesting parallel to how Caden functions on a day to basis and how that is inhabited through the performance at hand.

Next, the aforementioned scene with Caden berating Sammy following his suicide goes a long way in terms of how Hoffman’s performance juxtaposes the rest of the film. Synecdoche, New York is a film that has its’ entire narrative revolve around Hoffman’s performance, so the actions that he takes in that one scene also serve to carry the narrative forward and develop how the audience interprets the unfolding events. As the film progresses forward, we see society slowly begin to teeter on the brink of self-destruction, ready to collapse at any given moment. The character of Caden is supposed to be depicted as so singularly driven that he is also blatantly stupid and fails to realize what is going on here. And part of what makes this blinding ignorance feel so taut and visceral is because that we’re not seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman play Caden Cotard as he experiences this downward spiral. We are instead watching Philip Seymour Hoffman become Caden Cotard before our eyes.

Hoffman inhibits the role of the professional within the context of performance in this work. He functions as one who knows what he is doing and as a result, uses his persona to create a character. The spine is the same but the essence of what defines the character can be different. And when it comes to the defining characteristics that define a performance, you don’t need to experiment with the properties of the player. Their physicality, voice, eyes, face and age all provide a certain dimension to the character. You need an expressive body, face and set eyes for the camera to pick up and for audiences to react to. You need to be able to move. You have to be comfortable in your body because the camera picks it up. For Synecdoche, New York, so much of the film’s central themes play with the inevitability of time and what comes along with that. Hoffman is shown to age as the film he goes on and it’s little gestures, maneuvers and movements he makes that represent his character’s growth, or in this case, his inner confinement.

When the film opens up, we focus on Caden stubbornly remaining in bed as his alarm clock goes off and his daughter sings. It’s Hoffman’s subdued range of feelings that he facially emotes that make us realize something is wrong is in this man’s life. As the narrative progresses, Hoffman continually toys with how this stubborn solipsist attitude will be his undoing. He goes the extra mile to show that Caden is in constant distress - mentally and physically. He berates and attempts to control characters like Hazel and Sammy. Hoffman initially juxtaposes that feral side of him with a more meandering personality to parallel that same sense of control. Hoffman goes out of his way to create a softer angle to the more controlling side of his character as a means to add more emphasis to the “aggressive” scenes, such as the one following Sammy’s suicide. It’s a form of analogous performance that is created as a result. To show that our protagonist is in distress and state of mental exhaustion and confusion, the performance switches tonally as a way to show a man with a lack of solidified identity and purpose in life.


In conclusion, Philip Seymour Hoffman does something quite remarkable with his performance in Charlie Kaufman’s film. He manages to embrace what we expect from a typical performance from him, only to use it as a tool to subvert those same expectations. As a viewer, the various movements and patterns that Hoffman speaks or physically moves in are barraged with peculiar motions that affect how we perceive him to be - as a character and as the actor behind that character. In that essence, Hoffman delves into his own commitment and his own personal solipsism to craft a centralized on-screen persona that drives Synecdoche, New York and its’ themes forward. It is the little things prevalent throughout Hoffman’s complex execution of this role that make it stand out and switch up audience expectations.

Things like using relaxed, depressed mannerisms throughout the entire film only to jump into fiery outrage and quick-paced speech patterns in one scene to demonstrate the protagonist’s continual downward spiral. Hoffman is a master of the screen performance; because he combines every valuable element at his disposal to create something that is precisely different from anything we have ever seen before. Personal mythology, speech and bodily mannerisms all merge together to form something that gives Synecdoche, New York a razor sharp lead performance. In this film, Hoffman doesn’t merely perform. He molds, subverts and evolves.

There’s nothing quite like it. And by simultaneously rolling with and switching up presumptions, we are left with a magnum opus of a performance that will forever define Hoffman’s legacy, both on and off the screen.

Works Consulted
Synecdoche, New York. Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan. Roadshow., 2008. DVD.