Director: Charlie Kaufman
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, Jesse Plemons, David Thewlis
Cinematographer: Lukasz Zal
Editor: Robert Frazen
Streaming on: Netflix
We get it, Charlie. Your mind is a wondrous and wonky place. It’s surreal to be you. Your torment is tangible. You wake up buzzing with poetry and philosophical conversations and opinions and strange people in your head. There’s just so much knowledge and rage in there that pieces of paper – pages – might reduce them to words. And words have meaning. Words run the risk of…specificity. A screen, on the other hand, is where you can throw all of it and see what sticks. If something doesn’t stick, the slug-like imprint it leaves behind becomes abstract art. A screen is where you can show us worldly faces acting otherworldly and then judge us for not getting any of your references – ranging from Wordsworth to Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! musical to Mussolini’s trains to Pauline Kael’s review of a John Cassevetes film (!) to rape songs disguised as Christmas songs. A screen allows you to escape the burden of playing polite host to viewers who enter and gape at the letters in your museum-like head. The more esoteric the anti-storytelling looks, the more we mortals can mythify the “written for the screen and directed by Charlie Kaufman” syndrome. If nothing makes sense, everything makes sense. We get it, Charlie.
We also get that this is why I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a slog to sit through. Granted, it’s based on an original horror-fictional novel, but the premise of Iain Reid’s book reads like something Kaufman might have written if he weren’t directing the film himself. It has an absolute end – a narrative twist – that endorses the dissonance of the beginning (a couple heavy-chat on a long drive) and the tension of the middle (an uncomfortable dinner at the man’s parents’ farmhouse). The twist is such a writerly take on mental illness that it instantly storifies what appeared to be a stream-of-consciousness memory-babble exercise. But Charlie Kaufman cannot resist. Adaptation, after all, is an art – quite literally in his case.
So he stamps his own originality over the pre-existing originality, and the result is an infuriatingly puzzling movie I cannot describe to you even if the sun shined eternally in my spotless mind. At one point, a naked old man follows an animated maggot-infested pig in a college hallway moments after two ballet dancers perform Oklahoma! in that hallway. This is followed by a Nobel prize ceremony. I don’t know. It looks cool, as does any middle finger to the Hollywood studio template, but I’d be damned if I felt a thing. My expectations, of being hit with a wave of hidden resolution, had exhausted me by then. We all like to be yanked around by artists, because surprise is an emotion that challenges the arrogance of human nature. But I wasn’t even moved – or shocked, or entertained, or creeped out – by the uncompromised vastness of intrigue this maker is capable of creating. The empathy gets lost in the stubborn cracks of his incoherence.
The problem with I’m Thinking of Ending Things is that to decipher its language of nothingness, one must forget that it’s made by Charlie Kaufman. But a blank slate is impossible. In fact, most of Kaufman’s scripts fetishize the perils of a blank slate. The early portions of this film are replete with some of his trademarks – the intellectual suddenness of love, the fluidity of time, the shape-shifting politics of romance, the undetected tenderness of dysfunctional family. For much of these parts, the film feels profound in its behavioral perceptions of a failing relationship. The woman (a terrific Jessie Buckley), whose scatterbrained genius (poet-artist-physicist-waitress) is supposed to be reflective of the filmmaker’s, is thinking of ending her six-week-old relationship with her socially awkward boyfriend (Jesse Plemons, radiating some Philip Seymour Hoffman-ness). Still, she accompanies him to meet his parents at the family farm. The conceit, of course, is that we can hear her thoughts. The possibilities feel endless when it becomes clear that he, too, might be able to hear her musings.
As a result, the interplay here is heartbreaking – and accurate, too, in how the insecure male ego deals with the sinking feeling of impending rejection. Everything he then does is a course-correction to make her stay, a last-ditch attempt to convince her of his compatibility. When she thinks of words, he cites Wordsworth to impress her. When she ponders about his dry personality, he engages in random banter. When she thinks of how closed and unreadable he is (“he’s a nice guy but…”), he cites his mother’s declining health twice. You can almost hear him think: Hey, I’ll show you, I have issues too! It’s a warm drive through a cold blizzard, and yet they speak like strangers sparring in a ring if overcompensation were a full-time sport.
The final act is so wildly pretentious that it destroys any speck of humanity that the skeleton – buried under layers of charred flesh – is built to express
The dinner at his parents’ is equally endearing if not as comprehensible. Nobody reacts rationally in a scene that ping-pongs between the past, present and future. (“We don’t move through time, time moves through us”). The parents abruptly transition between young and old, middle-aged and sick – as if the man were, again, trying to gain his girlfriend’s sympathy by showing her how tough his life is. “Sometimes it feels like nobody remembers the good things you do,” he ruminates, at the bedside of a dying parent, seconds after a dinner where the perfectly healthy parents annoy him with their simplistic crudeness. It’s like the filmmaker is plowing through the fractured grammar of dementia to present the man as a complex character – one who might deserve admiration and love and kindness from his fading girlfriend. This is possibly the only point of the film that attempts to evoke a feeling not named confusion.
Most of us manufacture sadness when we know that more sadness is around the corner. That’s because we often mistake caregiving for love, concern for companionship. The woman is constantly thinking of ending things, but the man is thinking of showing her various ends to prevent her from ending things. But the reduction of a relationship to an object (“things”) is already inherent to the phrase used by humans to terminate both hearts and lives. It’s a cruel duality, and one that might have been more apparent in a film that wasn’t so cinematically conscious of its premise. The final act is so wildly pretentious that it destroys any speck of humanity that the skeleton – buried under layers of charred flesh – is built to express. I know the intent of the ending only because I read about the book. And it’s poignant and clever – qualities that this film willfully avoids in pursuit of auteurism. We get it, Charlie. But we also don’t.