A loose adaptation of a popular 2016 novel by Iain Reid, Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a depressing Rorschach test where the results only indicate or perpetuate the test-taker’s anxiety. It fills its 134 minutes with awkward dialogue peppered with faux-intellectual cultural references, all imbued with a haphazard surrealism. I keep thinking about the film, but I don’t really want to. It’s lingering in my mind not because it’s worth contemplating (I’m not sure it actually has a single original idea), but because it’s so maddeningly incoherent while watching it, and so strikingly obvious upon reflection, that it appears to have lodged its on-screen existential dread within my own psyche like a splinter. The film is intentionally inscrutable, taunting the viewer to come up with a plausible explanation for its (lack of) plot and (non)characters’ actions, to do the mental work of trying to understand What It All Means while the film (and, I assume, Kaufman) strongly suggests that none of it “means” anything. By its conclusion, I’m Thinking of Ending Things appears to posit that existence is futile, hope is a false construct we’ve created to keep from killing ourselves, and everyone dies alone; the film literally romanticizes suicide. It’s a maudlin, misanthropic mess which revels in its own opacity, a puzzle film which intentionally hides the pieces.
In some ways, this should not be surprising. Kaufman is the writer behind such ambitious and quirky films as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as well as the two films he wrote and directed, Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa. Each of these films wrestles with the concept of selfhood, the disconnect of the individual from society, and the existential longings of downtrodden lonely souls, all framed in the context of a yearning for romantic love. In this regard, I’m Thinking of Ending Things remains solidly Kaufman-esque. But it is also the least accessible of Kaufman’s oeuvre, as well as the most bleak. Where these previous films each had a dark sense of humor and moments of whimsy, similar moments in I’m Thinking of Ending Things are tinged with a sort of nihilism, a deeply skeptical and cynical view of the world, including its art. Throughout the film, characters directly reference various cultural creations, ranging from Eva H.D. to William Wordsworth to Ralph Albert Blakelock to John Cassavettes. In one key scene, we see a pile of books prominently featuring Pauline Kael and David Foster Wallace, and there’s also a lengthy humorous dig at filmmaker Robert Zemeckis. Kaufman seems to be implying that these cultural artifacts make up a key part of our very memory and sense of self—we are the stories and artworks we consume. Guess that makes it a real bummer when no one will just listen to our brilliant insights and appreciate our cultural savvy because we’ll all die eventually so it doesn’t really matter whether or not we ever get around to finishing Infinite Jest.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is ostensibly about a young woman, wonderfully portrayed by Jessie Buckley (her performance from Wild Rose is one of my favorites from last year). But, this being a Kaufman film, it isn’t actually about her (or, really, “her”). Beautiful, intelligent, complex women are nearly all ciphers in Kaufman’s films, Manic Pixie Dream Girls for the sad solipsistic saps who view them as muse or savior. “I’m thinking of ending things,” she confesses in the opening voiceover narration, an obvious-yet-ambiguous statement that could refer either to her newish relationship with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons) or her own existence. She and Jake go on a road trip in the middle of a snow storm in order to meet his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette) out on their farm in rural Oklahoma. As their journey progresses, so does the weirdness. Her name changes from Lucy to Louisa to Lucia, her interests from poetry to biology to painting to physics, her attire from bright red to midnight blue. Where Jake seems mostly affable in the car ride, he clams up and appears hostile with his parents, who seem to change in age and appearance throughout the cringe-inducing dinner. Punctuating these increasingly bizarre scenes are inserts of a mopey unnamed janitor (Guy Boyd) who quietly goes about his work cleaning in a high school. Where and how these two apparently disparate narratives converge is only made clear by the film’s finale (and even then, it’s not really certain), which goes full-blown “it was all just a dream” hallucinatory strangeness, complete with musical numbers from Oklahoma! and speeches from Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. Both Buckley and Plemons give such complex and affecting performances which are increasingly hampered by Kaufman’s stifling script and direction. Buckley unfortunately moves into the periphery over the course of the film; by the final shot over the end credits, it’s clear who this story is about, as Buckley’s character is credited merely as “The Young Woman.” Why bother giving her a name when she (and everything else) doesn’t really matter?
I’ve seen some websites label the film a “thriller” or a “horror.” Those generic labels require thrills or horrors (or at least a few jump scares) to merit their application, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things lacks all of the above. What it does seem to contain is a sort of contempt for its audience, as well as its characters—the latter are mere tools to be used to provoke the former. I sensed a smug elitism behind it all, a conscious effort to make the audience feel uncomfortable and in over their head, not in order to further the mystery and elicit curiosity, but to cynically point out the emptiness of such endeavors. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is like reading like the Book of Ecclesiastes as wholly removed from the context of the rest of the Bible and with the verses deliberately placed out of order: it’s meaningless, pessimistic, and vapid in both form and content.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7939766/