Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out in 2004. In 2007 I made two unsuccessful attempts to watch it. By the third time I was determined to sit through the entire film and see what all the fuss was about. I was disappointed…Wait, let me rephrase that to be more accurate. I hated this movie. Yet, as time passed I found myself actively mirroring the film by not being able to remember what exactly I hated except for it being relatively slow. As the past five years progressed I found ESSM to be at the top of many “Favorite of All-Time” lists, so I decided last night to give it another try now that I have matured. Did my hostility hold up?

Not in the slightest! While I still am not willing to put ESSM near the top of my favorites list, I did, however, find it to be infinitely more enjoyable than the first time through.


Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczyinski (Kate Winslet) went through the normal relationship progression of: meet, develop intrigue, build feelings, have fun and fight until the end. Clementine, being a spontaneous hair-color-changing kind of gal, sees Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) about a procedure that deletes memories from a person’s psyche with no repercussions. We follow Joel’s foray into the procedure as Mierzwiak’s assistants, Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Mary (Kirsten Dunst) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), perform the procedure on a sleeping Joel.

Re-watching ESSM made me realize where I originally found faults. The beginning is very tedious and deliberate. This is all rectified once the film takes off and the goal becomes apparent, but if you are only mildly interested in seeing the film to begin with, the opening sequences will provide you with little motivation to finish the film.

Once we get beyond the opening twenty-thirty minutes, ESSM dives head first into our memory systems and the personal ramifications of tinkering with such a delicate piece of our individuality. Granting someone access to the deepest recesses of our memory is an intensely intimate idea, but the public in the ESSM world flock to Dr. Mierzwiak without any second-guessing…until Joel. His change of heart occurs mid-procedure as he becomes cognizant of what is occurring and tries to keep a firm grasp on some of his Clementine-related memories.

These mid-memory scenes are where the film flourishes, but the character of Joel falls apart. The idea of trying to salvage a memory as someone is literally erasing them is very well portrayed here. We have things disappearing before Joel’s eyes and in other cases a flashlight-sized light is pulled in close on Joel, creating the sense of growing darkness in place of former memories. These scenes are done very well and shown the perfect amount—too many and the film drags, too few and it confuses.

Initially, Joel’s personality is awkward, anti-social, introverted and generally incapable of communicating effectively with those around him. Carrey does an excellent job doing an impression of someone like this by incorporating the typical mannerisms of these sorts of people. He doesn’t really make the role his own, but he does well.

Now, during the memory sequences, Joel develops and inexplicable confidence that allows him to better understand Clementine and attempt to savor what little time left he has with her. The fact that Joel is essentially the main character and the only one with a true change in personality makes this arc slightly perplexing, but it is not enough to really hinder you from understanding the plot.

The inclusion of Mierzwiak’s assistants and their role in the procedures holds the film together as the “outside” view of memory erasure. Stan is the technician who does his best to separate himself from the moral ambiguity and Ruffalo doesn’t have much to do with regards to giving Stan a voice. Mary is the wide-eyed, yet blindly adoring fan of Mierzwiak’s work. Dunst seems to have fun in the role, which is a welcome change from her typical apathy. Elijah Wood, in my mind, has played one role that fits within his talents: creepy guy from Sin City. Playing the stalker-esque Patrick is the second-most appropriate role I’ve seen him in and thankfully is only given minimal screen time. His moments are crucial to the post-procedure Clementine, but Patrick is an unlikable and pathetic character.

Similar to the controlled chaos of Memento, ESSM takes an interesting approach to a somewhat overplayed story: dealing with a hard break-up. Instead of portraying Joel’s reaction and life after the procedure, ESSM puts extra emphasis on his coherent reactions during the procedure. I really enjoyed this style even if I still found the movie a little slow.

The complexities and ramifications of a film like ESSM still resonate eight years later, and I am happy I made the decision to give it a second, full chance. Along with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can now become one of the Charlie Kaufman films I enjoy, so there’s no need for “how could you dislike this movie?” comments. I am converted…mostly.

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