2 Hrs., 14 Mins.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things September 29, 2020
haracteristic for the increasingly esoteric writer-director Charlie Kaufman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), his first project since 2015’s stop-motion venture Anomalisa, is something of a puzzle. As I watched it I sometimes was reminded of the early days of this year’s quarantine — specifically the brief period where my roommates and I would chip away at puzzles set up on our dining-room table to help
pass the time. I’d fiddle with them here and there, setting an edge piece down somewhere when I felt inspired. But I ultimately could never bring myself to commit to fully helping out. How enriching is it, really, to stew in a mostly unpleasant concoction of self-imposed patience and frustration? For the purposes of escapism, I’d prefer to move in the direction of something like Tiger King. Watching the puzzling I’m Thinking of Ending Things brought me back to this train of thought I experienced so often this spring. I admired the tessellated vision of the puzzle's maker, and am even a little envious of the passion of those willing to work to make sense of it, and that’s mostly it.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is aggressively abstruse — almost gleefully inaccessible. It comes across less like the work of a filmmaker wanting to “move” his audience — make it see the world differently and potentially clearer — and more an exhausting feature-length exercise in self-gratification. Not Kaufman’s intent necessarily. While making the film he was in part looking to effectively reexamine everyday horrors (“which are aging, loneliness, losing your mind, and falling apart,” he told the Atlantic earlier this month). But intentions become blurred no matter their loftiness or clarity when pitched when your film is willfully inscrutable. That willful inscrutability irritates in I’m Thinking of Ending Things to the point that the effect is, “Kaufman doesn’t care how smart you are, as long as you know how smart he is,” Stephanie Zacharek noted in her review of the movie for Time. Inexorably, the film has become fodder for lots of “explainer” articles and YouTube videos.
The narrative is tangled — no need to unravel its knots. What I will say is that on the face of it, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about an unnamed young woman (a great-as-ever Jessie Buckley) who is going to have dinner with her boyfriend of six weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons), and his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette) at their countryside home. She stipulates that she and Jake return home at the end of the evening (she has work to do in the morning) but that’s not looking very realistic. When Jake first picks our heroine up, it’s snowing, and the snow dumps harder and harder as they lurch toward the family home, hoping they won’t have to pull out the chains (which Jake assures his girlfriend he has). The relationship doesn’t seem to be in that good a place. Conversations are stilted, and over and over again the woman thinks to herself that she should break up with this man. She can guess where this burgeoning romance is heading, and it’s nowhere thrilling.
Once Jake and his girlfriend get to the house, I’m Thinking of Ending Things
becomes progressively surreal. People will leave the room and return with a new hairstyle, outfit, personality, and age. (Everything about Collette’s and Thewlis’ performances is wonderfully off.) The heroine’s ostensible name and profession won’t stop changing, like she was the star of a Three Faces of Eve
(1957) remake. She keeps receiving phone calls, and even though the caller ID will list a woman — usually Lucy or Lucia — the heroine will hear the voice of a middle-aged man saying something a couple of steps away from ominous on the off chance she picks up. Any time we catch a glimpse of the family dog, he’s shaking out the water in his fur for an exorbitant amount of time, like he was possessed. He’s stuck in arrested instability.
A whiplash-inducing conversation about John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974) leads one character to recite Pauline Kael’s damning review of it nearly in full as if it were proper material for an everyday conversation. “Assertations?” a listening companion asks. At one point the movie cuts away to a janitor on his lunch break watching a romantic comedy on a classroom projector. When the action in the movie within this movie finishes, “directed by Robert Zemeckis” flashes across the screen. I laughed hard. Is this outright contempt or a gentle ribbing? Toward the end of the film, there’s an old-Hollywood-style dance sequence — artsy-fartsy like the extended “Broadway Melody” ballet in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Closer to the beginning of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Jake and the heroine listen to a song from the soundtrack of Oklahoma! (1955) in the car. Then, in a tricky loop-de-loop, a high-school staging of the musical closes out the film.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things seems by turns to be a kind of parable on regret, time, aging, art as a means to make sense of the world, and, above all else, the restorative power of empathy. During the Kael monologue, someone takes issue with the coldness with which Kael characterizes heartbreaking Influence protagonist Mabel Longhetti. Who cares how showy actress Gena Rowlands is when Cassavetes and Rowlands together have done a pretty good job eliciting sympathy for her and her plight? And when Thewlis looks at an en plein air painting that has apparently been made with the intention of making the viewer feel like they’re there, overwhelmed by the way the sun’s hitting this thicket of trees, he bluntly says he can’t connect with it because there isn’t anyone in this painted world he can channel. The heady thematic mixture is presented so chaotically and abstractly that it’s hard to grab onto anything. Its ideas are like ingredients swimming in a vat of boiling water, with us tasked, if we so choose, with pulling each of them out. Some viewers are bound to be more inclined to put on the gloves needed to not get burned.
I was inspired less to ruminate on the film’s abstractions and more to think to myself that I’m glad I don’t live inside Kaufman’s head, which then dovetails into questions of his well-being. Little is all that clear or tangible in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but plenty evident is a bleak worldview that’s only gotten bleaker with time. Early Kaufman projects like 1999’s Being John Malkovich
and 2002’s Adaptation also were almost inescapably deemed mind-bending when they first came out. But those were fun-strange — ticklishly outré. They were likelier to inspire a second or third or even fourth viewing to potentially get a firmer grip on Kaufman’s offerings. As I watched his first project of the decade, I kept thinking about how I couldn’t wait for things to end. C+