Film Review – I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I'm Thinking of Ending Things
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) made me feel every possible emotion there is while watching a movie. I was fascinated, confused, enthralled, entertained, terrified, and in the end deeply moved. That’s an accomplishment for something I’m still trying to piece together in my head. It’s a puzzle box, constantly changing and twisting in surreal directions, leaving us on our own to try and make sense of it all. Or maybe the point is that none of it is supposed to make sense. Sometimes art isn’t about trying to make everything fit in a logical manner. Sometimes we need to let go and allow our emotional reactions guide the way.
None of this is new to writer/director Charlie Kaufman. In fact, mentioning his name might be the best way to describe what this has in store for you. This is the same person who brought us mind-bending, existential trips such as Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation. (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Synecdoche, New York (2008). His work has always had a focus on identity, human connection, aging, and an obsession over the creative process. His latest effort continues these themes. Adapting Iain Reid’s book, Kaufman examines the various aspects of love, family, nostalgia, and everything in between. He touches on all these subjects, but even that doesn’t feel like an accurate explanation.
Let’s start with what we do know. A young woman (Jessie Buckley) takes a road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) out of the city to visit his parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis) for dinner at their farm. While trying to make the best of things, the woman informs us through narration that she has misgivings about her situation and is considering ending the whole thing. To make matters even worse is that the trip is taking place during a heavy blizzard. The woman keeps insisting that they go back that night because she has work to do the next morning.
That is the barebones structure of the narrative, but that barely skims the surface of what Kaufman is doing. Almost as soon as they arrive at the farm, things dive into the bizarre. Jake’s parents change in age, getting older and younger and back again. Jake turns agitated, even hostile toward them, and for some reason he keeps referring to the woman by different names and occupations. Is the woman even real? At one point she looks at a photograph of a young Jake but sees a young version of herself. She mentions “ending things,” but does she mean ending her relationship with Jake or “ending it all” as in suicide? There is a reference to John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974) in which the main character (Gena Rowlands) suffers a mental disorder, putting a strain on her marriage. Does this operate in support of or in contrast to Cassavetes’ film?
A growing sense of dread creeps in the longer we stay with these people. The snow is a constant presence, slowing ensnaring them so that escape is unlikely. Again and again the weather conditions are described as “treacherous.” Lukasz Zal’s cinematography incorporates a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, creating a near square frame, which heightens the mounting anxiety and claustrophobia. While the woman’s persistence to leave gets more desperate, so too does Jake’s desire to stay. He comes up with any excuse to stay longer, whether it be visiting a local ice cream shop or stopping by his old high school – because apparently those are things a person wants to do in the middle of a snowstorm. Speaking of the high school, we’re also introduced to the school’s janitor (Guy Boyd), working late into the night and watching Robert Zemeckis movies. His presence works entirely separate from what happens between the young woman and Jake.
What does this all mean? A person can take one look at this and brush it off as mere pretension, but that would be taking the easy way out. What makes Kaufman’s approach so appealing – this can be said for many of his films – is the level of warmth he instills in the material. Despite everything being a jumble of dense and dreamlike symbolism, the emotions the characters have for one another keeps all of it tied together. They hope for an idealized life, one where passions are followed through and whatever trouble there may be is whisked away like a classic Hollywood romance. Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley are both fantastic in their respective roles, exuding the right kind of tone for a Charlie Kaufman film. Jake and the young woman are imperfect people, full of eccentricities, doubts, and angst, but they try their best to move along even when they aren’t sure what they’re doing or where they’re going. Not many actors can pull off authentic performances inside such an odd world, but they do so exceptionally well.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things will take active participation by the audience and multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. There’s no way to grasp everything this has to offer with a single watch. If you’re looking for something to turn your brain off and be distracted by for two hours, this is not the movie for you. But if you’re willing to meet it on its own weird terms, you’ll end up finding one of the most exciting cinematic experiences of the year.