Director: Charlie Kaufman Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis Running Time: 134 minutes
Charlie Kaufman has never been one to shy away from unconventional projects. While his directorial debut came with Synecdoche New York in 2008, Kaufman made his bones in screenplay, penning Being John Malkovich in 1999, while perhaps being best remembered for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind five years later. Throughout this eclectic filmography has been a strong theme of existential uncertainty and metaphysical pondering. There’s also been a fair share of Kaufman’s work being referential to pop culture, sometimes satirical, sometimes more serious. Among these rather confounding patterns however stands a more clear characterisation of Kaufman. That is, his understanding and appreciation of storytelling stems from his impressive communicative abilities in the written form. To those most familiar with his career, he will likely be seen as someone who is best equipped to deliver if he grounds his film in an expertly crafted script. No doubt, this talent is one that Kaufman appears well versed in. Here however, on the back of films like Synecdoche New York that were famously difficult for audiences to penetrate, his task as a more deeply involved film maker requires a more balanced and nuanced skill-set.
Based on the Ian Reid novel of the same name, I’m Thinking of Ending Things begins with Jessie Buckley as Lucy (kind of?) jumping out of the wintery breeze and into the car of her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). As we already know from an introductory internal monologue, Lucy is far from certain about the prognosis of their relationship, which itself is still in the early stages. In spite of the misgivings and uncertainty clearly plaguing Lucy, she sets off with Jake to meet his parents, in a vaguely defined icy agricultural farmland.
The couple discuss a number of topics on this (very) long car journey. So much so that the best part of half an hour is confined to the front seat of the car, splitting between intermittent externalised dialogue and the internalised little voices in Lucy’s head casting doubts and conflicting reflections about the suitability of Jake as a partner, the realistic future of their relationship, and other broader musings. From a technical point of view, the manner in which the dialogue interrupts the internal monologue is very well executed, particularly when considering how the already complex screenplay had to be adapted from the page and fit within the editing and sound mixing of the end product. Within a number of evolving and discontinuing discussions in the car, Jake cautions that they may want to, and in fact could be better off by stopping to get some snacks. This in part, is due to the odd and unstable place that his mother is currently in, eliciting palpable dread on Jake’s face, possibly because the mother won’t be able to cook, possibly for darker reasons. This is the beginning of a sense of panic and discomfort that is competently stirred up in the first act, especially to those who watched the trailer and noticed Toni Collette’s revival of the talent she displayed so terrifyingly well in Hereditary. We don’t quite know what’s wrong, but there’s a strong sense that something isn’t quite right, and if the couple return at all from this trip, things will at the very least be radically different. This sense of growing apprehension is superbly complemented by the blizzard like conditions outside of the car. It helps in crafting a claustrophobic anxiety, and the tight squeeze of a 4:3 aspect ratio conjures up even more panic. In a way, the longer the car journey goes on, the more intrigued we are to see what awaits the couple when they finally get to their destination.
If I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t start to divide viewers by this point, it certainly will when they finally get to see Jake’s parents. The unnamed mother and father, convincingly played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis respectively, are deeply unsettling from the moment of their arrival on screen. After stuttered and awkward exchanges, the eventual attempt by Lucy to leave and get back home becomes beleaguered by a set of increasingly cerebral mind boggling events that can only be described as a sense of spatial, metaphysical, and temporal changes that make you begin to question whether any of this is even really happening.
While this language may come off as muddled and incoherent, it is a disappointingly accurate reflection of how I’m Thinking of Ending Things gradually unfolds. There is so much going on, but also not. Kaufman doesn’t like to attach definitive labels to his films, and it shows here. The film breaks convention in so many ways, but often it’s impossible to tell if it’s doing so in a deeply meaningful and interesting way. To this end, many viewers will think that the film ultimately just isn’t as sophisticated or as thought-provoking as its admittedly ambitious director thinks it is. Looking at Kaufman’s filmography as a whole, you really don’t get the impression that accessibility ranks high on his film making to-do list.
The general allegation of films being too impenetrable is one that conjures up divisiveness. Some people think that you shouldn’t need to see a film twice, or even several times, to comprehend its meaning. Others disagree, and it’s admittedly a very interesting argument. What I didn’t personally find interesting, was the subject matter of numerous elongated conversations in this film. I didn’t find it emotionally or intellectually appealing, and unlike numerous monologues from films like Synecdoche New York, it didn’t even have nuggets of obvious but rhetorically attractive speeches. I didn’t think it was a film that scarified its story for character development either. Therefore, even in spite of a fantastic performance from the increasingly reliable Jessie Buckley, I didn’t connect to any of the characters, and didn’t see any development on account of the muddled and confusing things that the director was distractingly trying to hammer home. This could have been alleviated by some comedic pallet cleansing. Unfortunately however, if the film attempted humour, it missed me completely. I got a solitary laugh out loud moment from Toni Collette’s first appearance on screen, and was frustratingly silent thereon.
The final admission is that I honestly found myself bored, and found myself at a level of impatience throughout the final act that I haven’t experienced since 2012’s Cloud Atlas. Presumably, fans of that film will be a lot more intrigued by I’m Thinking of Ending Things than I was. Perhaps, in many ways, this is the point. I’m Thinking of Ending Things will undoubtedly make audiences pop their thinking caps on. Some viewers will be utterly disinterested, others will think it’s a masterpiece. To those of the latter category, I wish I could share the enthusiasm. And with that, I’ll end things.(2 / 5)