I'm Thinking of Ending Things movie review: Charlie Kaufman dreams up a masterful mind-boggler sure to be dissected for ages
Watching I'm Thinking of Ending Things on Netflix, you are bound to experience some metaphysical whiplash as the membrane between subjective memory and objective reality becomes permeable.
castJesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd
“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot,” said Charlie Chaplin. Seen through a self-reflexive POV shot, life becomes a Charlie Kaufman movie.
In its latest variant ominously titled I'm Thinking of Ending Things, the viewer is ferried into the head of a young woman named Lucy (Jessie Buckley). Or is it Lucia, or Louisa? No one is sure but let us settle on Lucy for everyone's convenience. Whether Lucy is a poet, a painter, a physicist or a plagiarist or all four, we are not sure of that either. What we are sure of is her despair — and she is currently caught in the grip of an inexplicable existential despair. It is a Charlie Kaufman movie after all. We know all this thanks to the internal narrator in her head. Ever so often, this internal despair reflects itself externally, and a thought leaks out. “Once this thought arrives, it stays,” as she says. The thought repeating itself is the one implied in the title: she is thinking of ending things. Not her life. But her relationship with boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons).
Despite the recurring thought, Lucy decides to accompany Jake on a long drive through a snow storm to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at a secluded farmhouse. Those looking for a plot as some sort of antidote to the potential narrative anxiety, it is a “Breakup Movie” + “Meet the Parents” staged in Kaufman's Theatre of the Absurd. Like his fictional namesake in Adaptation, Kaufman strives for originality in his adaptation of Ian Reid's novel, and gives us his most demanding yet rewarding work as a director. Think what William Oldroyd did to Lady Macbeth or Jonathan Glazer did to Under the Skin. Kaufman similarly reimagines Reid's story in a medium that grants him the freedom to explore his own ideas and idiosyncrasies.
Lucy is like most of us: she enjoys good books, good movies and good conversation. Jake does too. Their relationship however has not materialised into a love greater than the sum of these mutual interests. They are like bizarro Jesse and Céline, and their dialogue has a similar unrehearsed quality as they discuss everything from Broadway musicals to suicidal insects. But like Joel says in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, “constantly talking isn't necessarily communicating.” She listens, even participates but is not entirely present in the relationship. Moreover, she cannot even remember how long they have been dating: four weeks, six, or seven? She convinces herself it is seven because it reassures her, knowing she tried to sustain the relationship for the longest possible time. She boasts the usual Kaufman-standard self-awareness. A moment of clarity is followed by one of uncertainty. She feels alienated from Jake and herself, but cannot explain why.
Kaufman has often been criticised for making movies about needy men who depend on women for meaning in their lives, as if women exist solely as narrative devices to give men purpose. Lucy calls this out in one of her internal monologues, describing how her identity has become attached to Jake who relies on her for validation. Though this feels like a course-correction for Kaufman, he is paradoxically still using Lucy as a narrative device for his own reflection.
On the road trip to the countryside, Kaufman traps us in the confines of the car with Lucy's thoughts, the hum of the heater, and the back-and-forth of the windshield wipers. On arriving at the farmhouse, Jake gives her an “abridged tour” of the farm outside, where they encounter lambs frozen to death, and pigs eaten alive by maggots. Inside the house, the horror is borderline Lynchian. Over the course of the night, the parents laugh too much, the dinner spread remains untouched, and a dog keeps shaking itself dry. Moving from one room to the other, characters grow older and younger, their clothes change, their names and occupations too, as if they are traversing space-time through a wormhole. Adding to the confusion is a (possibly) parallel storyline involving an elderly high-school janitor (Guy Boyd).
Suspension of disbelief here is not a passing-by feeling but a permanent state of mind.
Lucy continues to receive mysterious phone calls seemingly from herself. There is a photo of Jake as a kid, which Lucy seems to think is her. This is Kaufman illustrating the mutability of memories. Jay Wadley’s score intensifies the demons deceptively hidden in Molly Hughes’s production design, somewhere behind the floral wallpaper, or simply in Lucy’s troubled mind. We, the viewers, are in the same state of confusion as her trying to figure out the objective reality in this plurality. The impossibility of distinguishing what is real and what is not allows the images to free themselves from the pretence of objectivity. Instead, he creates a plurality, which combines different interpretations of reality based on memory, imagination, and fantasy.
Kaufman keeps the camera glued to Buckley's face to showcase her distress, which only worsens as Lucy meets the mother and father in the ever-shifting reality of their farmhouse. The longer they stay, the more cramped and suffocating it becomes, giving a lingering sense that the world is closing in on her. She repeatedly insists she wants to go home right away, but Jake's attention is diverted by other mysterious events. As events begin to spiral beyond Jake's control, he gives in to the gravitational pull toward ego-centrism and cynicism that usually define Kaufman's male protagonists. He proves himself not to be the most reliable boyfriend, and Plemons switches between thoughtful docility and sudden irritability from one frame to another. The shifting sphere of surreality however rotates around Buckley's axis, even if Thewlis and Collette try to attract our attention towards their centre of (non) gravity. Lucy's crumbling sense of time and place, and her conflicting emotions, all manifest in Buckley's eyes before her mouth articulates them.
Watching I'm Thinking of Ending Things, you are bound to experience some metaphysical whiplash as the membrane between subjective memory and objective reality becomes permeable.
Besides, these characters are not afforded our linear luxury of seeing everything as having a beginning and an ending. Time here is an infinite loop, and traps its characters within it. This plays into Kaufman's idea of the futility of connecting with a person when all you are really doing is filling a void of loneliness that you have been carrying within yourself. So you are trapped in a loop where your loneliness ends up inevitably dragging them and the relationship down with it. Kaufman understands solitude is key to self-knowledge, but wonders if there is a way to know ourselves without the crippling loneliness. You can trace this thematic DNA to other works in Kaufman's career as cinema's chief investigator of memory, reality and originality, and purveyor of narcissism, alienation and despair. When Lucy quotes Oscar Wilde (“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation”), it reflects Kaufman's own desire for originality but also offers a hint to understanding what is unfolding.
Almost every adventurous choice Kaufman makes in the narrative feels authentic, like looking into an entirely different yet perfectly realised world. There is a Robert Zemeckis-directed fake movie within the movie. You might think the frequent namedropping and quoting of writers is like something out of ninth-grader's essay, but even they serve a purpose. Lucy recites Eva HD's poem Bonedog as her own, only to find it later in the bookshelf. On their way back home, a debate over A Woman Under the Influence sees Lucy parrot parts of Pauline Kael's review. Earlier, we notice Kael's For Keeps on his shelf too (interestingly, the review of the John Cassavetes film isn't actually included in this review anthology). If you are looking to freshen up that decorative background for your Zoom meetings, the movie offers plenty of solid options.
Where Kaufman really outshines Reid is in the ending, trading in the book’s twist for a surreal epilogue, full of dream ballet, theatrical monologues, and cartoon pigs, compelling us to seek the truth in the artifice. It delicately twists the source material into something far more affecting to take the edge off of the anxiety that came before it. But if you love Kaufman, you will of course treat anxiety as a narcotic virtue. Hiding my own anxiety with the widest of smiles, I'll put I'm Thinking of Ending Things in the win column for Charlie Kaufman, Netflix, and 2020.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is streaming on Netflix.
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