Charlie Kaufman’s films, as a screenwriter (“Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) or as a director (“Synecdoche, New York,” “Anomalisa”), have a reputation for being heady, sometimes alienating works that excavate uncomfortably deep into the mental chasms within their characters (often leaving them buried within). His latest directorial effort, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” is not different in that sense, except that the movie starts deep in a tunnel that has already been dug out. It’s one thing to make a story about people traveling into the recesses of their minds; in his latest latest twist, Kaufman does away with all outside perspective.
Most one-liners describing the plot of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will be highly misleading for what viewers are getting themselves into (the Netflix trailer also plays up horror movie notes, which are much subtler in the film). The film follows the same set-up as Ian Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name (which Kaufman adapted into a screenplay himself). A couple, Lucy and Jake (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons) are taking their first road trip together for her to meet his parents (short but energetic performances from Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their farmhouse in the country.
But, as Buckley’s character explains, something is amiss: She’s thinking about ending the relationship. Nothing is outwardly the matter. “But there’s just something ineffable, profoundly, unutterably, unfixably wrong,” Lucy explains in an inner monologue that is present through the first 20 minutes. The movie stays with Louisa’s perspective through a ride to the country, an increasingly surreal visit at the parents’ house, and a tense ride back through a blizzard. And that’s not a typo — Buckley’s character’s name changes throughout the film (the character is actually credited as the Young Woman — I’ll keep calling her Lucy from now on). Identity, amongst everything else one might try to grasp to orient themselves in the world, is constantly in question.
Though Kaufman, in his own indirect way, lays his cards on the table in the film’s final moments, there are hints to what is going on along the way. The plot seems to play out in real time, yet, over the 134 minute runtime, hours pass. Time doesn’t pass on the same scale, or in the same direction, for different characters at different points. Both Jake and Lucy have moments where their dialogue is unexplainably lifted directly from existing artistic products, including films and film reviews. Events and personal details are recounted multiple times, the specifics changing every few minutes. It’s as if the world is being controlled by some deity that isn’t sure what it actually wanted to create and imposes different iterations of what could have been to try to sort it all out. Perhaps most puzzling is how Lucy takes all of this in; while she seems confused and scared in some moments, she never has a full reaction to the madness around her, like she doesn’t really notice what is happening.
Amidst the shifting fabric of the film, there are various graspable themes that float in and out. Much of it has to do with the nature of memory, both in the ways in which some small details are the only things that one can remember (like the way a childhood dog shook itself dry), or how the uncertainties of passed time cast doubt on specific events. Does recollection of an ill parent change perceptions of something that happened while they were still healthy? Even further, how do memories play out with accumulated knowledge? As might be expected, Kaufman digs into the corners of the mind that hold trauma and the little details that draw out everything from rightful spite to full-on anger. People love to fixate and ruminate on the perceived slights experienced in life. But as strong as these reactions are in the moment, as much as they might stick through the months and years, there are mightier currents that flow through life, ones that rely on compassion and more unexplainable forces. Or, maybe, all of us just get too tired to sustain these emotions in any meaningful way.
Even if viewers can work out what the movie is generally “about,” there are so many elements and scenes layered in that are left to be puzzled out. Why is Jake so reluctant to go into the house when they actually arrive, and why are his parents so weird? What is the Young Woman’s dread-infused trip to drop some laundry off in the basement all about? Why is the basement door covered in scratches? What are the unrelated cutaways to a high school janitor all about? After watching the film some of these factors make sense; others remain frustratingly impenetrable (to this writer at least), but in a way that feels to be by design. This is not a film meant to provide answers or closure; the conceit of the project has very little to do with that. Watching it a second time through while understanding the basic where and what of the events does not really answer many of the questions that arise upon a first viewing, but the experience is, from moment to moment, more emotionally resonant.
Kaufman’s previous work is suffused with a recognition of the artifice and manipulation that is required in artistic creation. This obsession is manifested in various ways; it is blatantly meta in “Adaptation,” where Charlie and his (fake) identical twin brother are both characters in the movie and both credited as screenwriters, but it is more subtly, formally expressed in the stop-motion “Anomalisa,” where the use of blank, identical puppets effectively puts viewers into the headspace of a disengaged protagonist seeking human connection. In “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” the creation of false realities is simply the way of human life. Kaufman’s preoccupation with interiority often delivers crushing existential sentences to the characters he creates. Yet, sometimes, there are glimmers of beauty found within, and the climactic sequence uncovers these, even if briefly. Many people know how it feels to be stuck within themselves, to look out into the world and wish that they could act or talk in a certain way. The reality is that even in these stilted instances in life, the mind may be full of emotion and imagination, a truth that is both reassuring in its humanity and devastatingly confining. Sort of like a Charlie Kaufman movie.
Contact Daniel Shaykevich at [email protected].