About halfway through Charlie Kaufman’s newest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, there’s a scene where our lead begins reciting a film review from critic Pauline Kael criticizing a 1974 movie by John Cassavetes called A Woman Under the Influence. Our main character, who we now assume is mentally ill, takes on the persona of Kael talking about how Cassavetes’ film is so self-indulgent and overladen with symbolism that it makes the audience groggy. At this point, we feel the same way about Kaufman’s film. We’re not NOT enjoying it, but we’re also exhausted trying to figure out what’s all going on.
Now, why would Kaufman include a portion of Kael’s article lambasting a project that his own project is highly inspired by and follows the same didacticism? Perhaps he’s challenging Kael’s voice while doubling down on Cassavetes’ vision. After all, the two films aren’t that far off. That wink to those privy to the iconic critic’s work is merely a nod to his own vision as he stands his ground. Or maybe it’s merely a wry dose of self-parody in order to justify everything he’s doing. Like being the first to laugh at yourself for peeing your pants as a way to make it less fun for others to mock you.
Aware that he’s making his audience just as groggy, Kaufman chooses to be the first to acknowledge his haughty and over-thought auteurism in hopes it will make us less tired. Well it doesn’t, and we aren’t.
However, unlike Cassavetes, at least Kaufman’s interesting filmmaking and unusual camerawork convince us that he’s not rudderless. Even if we don’t always get what they mean, we feel that they pertain to the premise in some regard. Likewise, Kaufman’s ideas aren’t as controversial compared to the iconoclast Cassavetes, who postulates that perhaps the people who society deems as insane are actually the sane ones all along, Kaufman’s film feels a bit more personal. Controversial at times, but those ideas merely seep in – they don’t become the entire film.
Instead, Kaufman wrestles with the ideas of regret and longing and the way memory morphs inside your head. As someone’s life approaches the finish line – mostly, someone who’s lived an “unfulfilled” life – what do they think about? Based on Iain Reed’s book of the same name, I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t really a movie you can talk much about without giving anything away. It begins with a 20 minute sequence where a young couple is in a car on the way to see the man’s parents. The young woman, Lucy (brilliantly played by Jessie Buckley), is narrating her conscience to the audience. She’s informing us how she’s unsure about this fairly new boyfriend of hers, Jake (Jesse Plemons), and that she’s thinking of ending things.
When we finally get to his parents’ house, the movie opens itself up and we no longer feel the sense of claustrophobia from being inside this car for so long, but rather we’re given an entirely new sense of discomfort. Jake’s parents are very obviously not right in the head. His mother (Toni Collette) has some form of Tourette’s, on top of a plethora of other issues, and his father (David Thewlis) is socially awkward and subtly rude. Lucy is so understanding to them, never reacting to their absurdities, which almost increases the tension more to the point of bubbling over.
As we get further into the story, situations become even more bizarre and confusing, to say the least. It gets tiring after awhile as we desperately try to connect the ambiguous pieces and search for answers, only to realize we’re only halfway into this movie. The beleaguering continues to press on as we try to adjust to new information. Fortunately, Kaufman’s filmmaking style is intriguing enough that we’re willing to take the journey despite the constant feeling of abandonment and bewilderment. We feel involved even when we’re knee deep in the abyss of the obtuseness.
Unlike Reed’s book, however, Kaufman never really pulls back. In all his Hitchcockian subversion and transfer of leads, we never really get that clear A-ha! moment. Many will undoubtedly leave the movie scratching their heads, and rightfully so. This is a film that will surely require a second viewing (at least) to fully grasp, which not everyone will be open to. “If a movie is so difficult to understand the first time around, why would I want to watch it again?” Well, you probably wouldn’t. And yet, somehow it just so happens that the success (or failure) of Kaufman’s film relies on you wanting to do just that.
At least the end result – if understood – is a worthy theme worth all the trouble. You could interpret it as a cautionary tale not to live life with regret, as that regret will haunt you and infect every future decision you make, or fail to make, until you’re left questioning the meaning of your life and holding on to some arbitrary circumstance that never panned out the way you would have liked it to.
Plemons finally gets the starring role he deserves and absolutely nails it. Jake views hope as a human invention, which isn’t really the idea one should have when searching for true happiness, nor is it a strategy to finding one’s purpose in life. His pain has turned him into a cynic, but not the kind that uses cynicism to mask sentiment or prevent any more pain. Nor the kind that one should be taking away from a film about suicide contemplation. Jake isn’t really a guy to look up to. A cautionary tale, indeed.
Likewise, this film should launch relative newcomer Buckley into the stratosphere. She’s given one of the most challenging roles I’ve seen in a while and executes her performance with the kind of genius that could probably never be duplicated. She navigates the split personality of her character with a smoothness that makes the seams between them nonexistent. Veterans Toni Collette and David Thewlis are magnificent as the unpredictable parents. Kaufman has put together one of the best acted films in a long, long time.
With his latest release, a third directorial effort and another notable entry in his screenwriting resume, it’s clear Charlie Kaufman’s name is something of a marquee presence. Here, he’s very careful with his perspective throughout the entire show, and we come to realize why later on (or we’re supposed to, at least). But then that revelation opens up a lot more questions than we care to deal with after the brain-swelling experience we just witnessed. Why was the perspective so specific?
I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t just challenge the audience to grasp an abstract concept, but to bear a burden of awkwardness that oozes out of nearly every corner of this film – the dinner scene with Lucy and Jake’s parents is one for the ages. Perhaps if many of us were better equipped to cut through that awkwardness, and even disregard it, then we might be more likely to go outside of our comfort zones, fulfill our dreams, and have less regrets. Unfortunately, these important concepts won’t be heard by the majority of people who watch the movie. Kaufman’s film isn’t for everyone, but at the same time it just might be.