‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things’ Review: Charlie Kaufman Needs To Talk
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a horror movie. It’s a high Charlie Kaufman surrealism. It’s a desperate plea for help from somewhere inside the empty halls of 2020.
The latest film by writer and director Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, among others) has none of the effervescence that made those early films crackle and pop with form-breaking energy. This movie is a somber, dark, flat circle of despair and loneliness.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t contain a mind-bending mystery. It does, though I’d argue it’s nowhere near as opaque as some might expect (or hope). A young woman, played by the outstanding Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl, Wild Rose) travels with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemmons, from Fargo and Black Mirror) to visit his parents.
As they travel down a country road into a snowstorm, their reality shifts. Buckley’s name does. She’s Lucy, though Lucy is calling her on her phone. She’s Lucia. She’s a poet, a painter, a physicist, and more, depending on the conversation. She’s the shifting muse of a man frustrated in his ambitions in life.
The first clue something is wrong occurs with the image of a brand new colorful swing set outside a ruined house. Lucy then recites from memory a poem she claims as hers but is not, and at the end speaks directly to the camera. This break of the fourth wall isn’t a wink at the audience, but a desperate plea for help.
That plea is in the title: I’m thinking of ending things. It’s put forward as the anxious thoughts of a woman considering ending an unsatisfying relationship before it advances too far. As the movie advances though, the true meaning of what is being ended, and by who, shifts like the drifting snow.
The movie conditions us to think it’s coming from Lucy, who is ostensibly the main character. But Jake seems to hear and/or anticipate her thoughts and engages her in a tail-chasing dialogue about ideas, art, and life that more often than not lifts directly from poems, essays, and films verbatim. The question is why.
Jake remains consistent in his restrained somberness, only until they reach the house, inhabited by his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette). Their age shifts with every scene. Sometimes they’re middle-aged, sometimes young, sometimes literally in their death beds. Charlie Kaufman creates a surrealist trap anyone stuck at home these last few months is likely to at least sympathize with.
“The onslaught of identical days” that Lucy references in her poem take on a stark, languid, and inescapable reality. Scenes in the home intercut with an elderly janitor, cleaning a high school. Lucy finds his uniform in the washing machine in the basement. He’s looking at her through a window at the beginning of the film.
Who is he? What’s happening? Similar to Palm Springs, the plot twists around a single event, but entire lifetimes trickle like underground rivers through the cavern of the film. After the young couple leaves the house, they make a detour to a high school in the middle of nowhere where the janitor works late at night. Dark, ominous music portends disaster and it arrives, but not in the way audiences likely expect.
To say any more about the plot would be to give it away. The film isn’t about its mystery or any deliberate confusion that some might associate with Charlie Kaufman’s work. This movie is about the winnowing horror of isolation. The ruins of a life not realized. Or as Jake says, “Suicide becomes the story.”
The movie twists around fears of aging and death, but much more so the fear of loneliness. This concept provides much of the foundation of Kaufman’s art in cinema and fiction, and here, especially in the context of a year that isolates beyond measure, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things takes on unusual power.
Some might find the film confusing, distancing, or simply too esoteric. It’s all of those things. It’s also a deeply felt meditation on the fear of unrealization. We all have it; what if we didn’t ask that person out? Didn’t take a chance on that opportunity? What if we never claim the benefits of simply being alive?
Jake’s isolation is pathological. Eventually, it becomes clear that Lucy or Lucia is not a person so much as an amalgamation. As deeply human as Buckley makes her, she is more an echo of Jake than she is her own person. His conversations with her are literally conversations with himself, and the art and criticism he immerses in.
The most significant example of this comes on the car ride back from the parent’s house. Their labyrinthine conversation morphs suddenly and inexplicably into a conversation about a John Cassavetes movie and Buckley begins talking about it in a strangely clinical and objective way.
Eventually, it sinks in this sounds like a review, and lo and behold, it is. After some quick Googling, this incendiary takedown of a review is courtesy legendary film critic Pauline Kael, in regards to the 1974 Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence. Kael’s books litter Jake’s bookshelves.
Art is a great balm and a great link to other lives. It is no cure for loneliness, especially for a soul that desperately needs to share. We live in a world that shares without a second thought, but in many ways, we’ve never been more alone. We fight both an epidemic of loneliness at the same time we fight a pandemic that further isolates us.
The ending of the film is no real twist, except perhaps for that of the knife. Fear and loneliness consume the film as the snow does the country roads. There is evidently no way out of the defeat of living, except perhaps a final commitment to becoming what every person inevitably does: a story.
Charlie Kaufman frames the story and many shots in isolation. Buckley shrinks inside giant frames, dwarfed by the monumental grief of loneliness. It’s an outstanding movie that demands a lot of concentration, and multiple viewings. It’s also a call to action. Fail in the act of trying.
The movie does not reference Samuel Beckett, or his novella Worstword Ho, but its most famous lines are worth considering here both for what they say and what they mean in the larger context often excised from simple memes. “Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”