In his long and sparsely populated movie career, writer and director Charlie Kaufman is well known as the most neurotic, interior-life focused, philosophically-obsessed of this generation of US moviemakers.
In films like Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — all of which he wrote but didn’t direct — Kaufman asks: to what extent we can consider ourselves individuals with unique perspectives rather than walking amalgamations of the influences and ideas we pick up along our life journeys? And can we ever really know anything about anyone else? Kaufman couches these questions in absurdist, black humor, which he’s a master at executing.
The films he’s directed himself — Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa, and now I’m Thinking of Ending of Things — are more concerned with pushing these questions to the center of their universes without the comfortable distraction of humor.
Based on a book by a Canadian author Ian Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Kaufman’s darkest, most awkward, and a difficult-to-watch outing to date. It’s also his most fully realized creation despite its unconventional and reference-filled dialogue and the stream of consciousness narrative.
If you’ve read the novel, you’ll be at an advantage because knowing something important regarding the film’s final twist. But as far as the rest of the film’s sense of existential dread is concerned, it’s necessary only to watch the movie and then rewatch, rewind, pause and replay to realize that everything you think you knew was wrong — because as in Kaufman, as in life.
The plot is simple enough. A young woman (Jessie Buckley) is standing in the snow outside her apartment waiting to be picked up by her boyfriend, Jake played by Jesse Plemons, for a trip to meet his parents on their farm. As the film begins, we’re inside her head. We learn that she’s “thinking of ending things” with Jake, who’s very friendly and who she’s been seeing for six or seven weeks? Either way, she’s not sure she’ll be in this relationship much longer.
Jake’s parents exaggerate the parents’ versions that the young woman’s imagination generates — played with creepy unreliability and schizophrenic mood switching by Toni Colette and David Thewlis.
This isn’t a Meet the Parents comedy of manners, though. It’s an uncomfortable piece of absurdist theatre that gets increasingly weird and surreal. Jake’s parents begin to walk in and out of doors, aging and de-aging, and the young woman find herself staring eerily at objects in Jake’s childhood bedroom before finally managing to convince him that it’s time, as she’s been saying since this all began, for them to leave because she has work to do.
There’s also the small, but not unimportant, the matter of the intercutting between the visit to the parents and the scenes showing the silent observations of an older man (Guy Boyd) who works as a janitor in a high school where yet another production of Oklahoma is being rehearsed.
On the trip back in what’s by now a blizzard, Jake and his girlfriend’s tension becomes unbearably thick. We’re treated to increasingly tricky conversations in which she suddenly, angrily, and passionately becomes the film critic Pauline Kael, delivering a scathing takedown of actress Gena Rowland’s performance in her husband’s seminal film A Woman Under the Influence; he tries to convince her of the genius of writer David Foster Wallace, whose suicide overshadowed his work, and they argue about the rape culture condoned by the American songbook classic Baby it’s Cold Outside. When they stop for ice cream at an Edward Hopper-inspired franchise called Tulsey Tots, you have to believe this relationship is about to implode spectacularly. They then arrive at Jake’s old high school where they meet the janitor, and things take one last time-bending, consciousness-expanding, and very surreal jump into the realms of total WTF-ness.
After just over two hours of not very much happening, you’ll suddenly realize that so much has happened. Kaufman has quietly dropped you into a new realm of boundary-expanding experimentation with the medium and its ability to express human experience’s inner realities.
Thankfully, it’s found a perfect home on Netflix — it’s a film that demands to rewatch, rethinking, and refiguring notions of what’s possible and what to expect from everything. We’ve become accustomed to these kinds of questions at this time and, in our darkest moments, who hasn’t thought that perhaps it’s just time to end things?
Hold that thought for two hours and watch this film before you do — it might change your mind and might also change the way you think about life, the universe, and everything.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is on Netflix.
Things take one last time-bending and very surreal jump into the realms of total WTF-ness