With what seems to be a new existential threat popping up every other day—pandemics, climate crisis, rising costs of living, and the psychopathic politicians with the power to solve it all but who choose not to—those of us living day-to-day are liable to either explore the untapped corners of a world we’ve taken for granted or retreat further into our own psyches. It should come as no surprise which avenue was chosen by animator Don Herztfeldt, whose cerebral short films have been an endless source of surreal laughs and emotional horror stories for the better part of 30 years. It should come as even less of a surprise that a short film entitled “ME” would continue this path, taking Hertzfeldt to the hitherto unexploited recesses of his manic brain.

Describing the plot of any Herzfeldt short would be like unpacking an impromptu therapy session with an eccentric pessimist you had only met 30 minutes ago, but even by the creator’s standards, “ME” takes a viscerally internal and wholly eclectic approach to its quasi-narrative that laying out the synopsis doesn’t even seem worth the trouble… or the mental strain and cork boards it might require. Playing out entirely without dialogue or voiceover, Herzfeldt explores a new means of storytelling that plays on the simplistic but instantly memorable character designs that have made him famous and applies them to a narrative at once sprawling in its universality and cutting in its intimacy. Such a description could feasibly be used for any Hertzfeldt short—that’s kind of his whole appeal—but “ME” takes the abstraction to a (literal) whole new realm.

The absence of words forces the animator to express his story entirely through those stick-figure blobs—here pared down to a design considered bare-bones even by Hertzfeldt’s standards—and the musical accompaniment, ranging from classical to new percussive jazz compositions, becomes an essential component to the short’s sense of pacing and unfettered expressiveness. That musicality is actually a crucial element of how “ME” came together; the story goes that the short was initially intended as a collaboration with a band Hertzfeldt has opted not to reveal because close to the short’s completion, that band came under the scrutiny of some damning allegations. Undeterred, Hertzfeldt (who already takes years to meticulously create his minuscule existential crises with pen and paper) went back to the drawing board in more ways than one and retooled what he had into something new.

ME (2024) Short Film Review
A still from “ME” (2024)

That ever-present meticulousness is entirely evident in one’s viewing of “ME,” as even when the short risks losing you in its expansive obliqueness, the breadth of the filmmaker’s vision is entirely felt in every thin line onscreen. In just 22 minutes, Hertzfeldt manages to throw in shades of relevant discourses like police brutality and pandemic reactions alongside deeply poignant references to ideas of regret, parental abuse, neglect, and self-destructive ambition. Through it all, it’s the ever-present fear of time and the ephemerality of human memory—permeating throughout all of his works—that once again preoccupies the artist here.

Due to its unchained nature and highly impressionistic delivery—not at all reliant on the dry wit of dialogue that has anchored the rest of Don Hertzfeldt’s oeuvre—”ME” is likely to find difficulty burrowing its way into the minds of those not already adherent to the filmmaker’s wavelength. Not nearly as viscerally penetrating as “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” or as focused in its expansive scope as the “World of Tomorrow” trilogy—if you catch “ME” in a cinema, your viewing will be paired with a double (…or quadruple) bill alongside either of these works—Hertzfeldt’s latest short nonetheless plants his artistic flag in new territory, boldly venturing towards the crevices of his anxious mind that have yet to be wrangled. Give him another few years, and Hertzfeldt will undoubtedly have figured out how to harness this new approach toward new depths of soul-crushing existentialism for us all!

Read More: Don Hertzfeldt and Ari Aster Set to Collaborate on “Big” Existential Horror Animation

ME (2024) Short Film Links: IMDb, MUBI, Letterboxd

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