'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' Is a Mind-Bending Glimpse into the Inner Workings of Our Psyche Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd
Published Sep 04, 2020Charlie Kaufman's latest meandering mind-bender, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, is a difficult film to talk about because it talks about itself so much. Ostensibly, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a drama about a young relationship, but it's hard to say that with much accuracy, because the film is so strange.
For a review to say anything substantive about this movie, it would first need to consider its form. More than it unfolds, this movie pools, slowly expanding over its two-hour run time in the self-referential way that thoughts do. That's why it's such a spectacular feat: what Kaufman has brought to the screen with I'm Thinking of Ending Things reflects the overlapping, circuitous, rushing way our minds work.
Kaufman wrote and directed the film, which is based on a book by Iain Reid. The story, for the most part, is told through the perspective (and inner monologue) of the unnamed Young Woman (Jessie Buckley), who has been dating Jake (Jesse Plemons) for six or seven weeks.
Jake is taking the Young Woman to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) and he is, understandably, nervous and excited. The Young Woman, meanwhile, is — and here's where the title comes in — thinking about ending things with Jake.
The couple drive through a blizzard to get to the farm Jake grew up on, and as the dinner progresses, the Young Woman, though performing as the perfect girlfriend for mother and father, remains steadfast in her desire to end things. But also as dinner progresses, strange things begin to happen throughout the house: Jake and his parents age forwards and backwards in time, while the Young Woman's knowledge and sense of self are constantly being undermined. Her name changes from Lucy to Louisa to Lucia, she goes from being a painter to poet to gerontologist to film student, and her outfit, though maintaining its colour story, changes almost imperceptibly from scene to scene.
The narrative is spliced through with the impressions of the elderly Janitor (Guy Boyd) as he does his work through Jake's old high school. The film doesn't explain his relation to Jake and the Young Woman (if he even has a relation to them — is he an older Jake?), nor does it explain the strange things that take place on the farm and on the way back from the farm. The characters are oftentimes confused, but so are we. And this is why this is such a difficult film to review — because it defies any singular interpretation.
The events in this movie don't unfold, they just pile up outside of the causality we're used to in traditional narratives; they're more within the confines of a stream-of-consciousness account, like so many memories yoked together. In this regard, the movie makes a kind of intuitive sense. Everything the Young Woman knows is everything Jake knows (his childhood room contains all the books and movies she talks about with Jake), all her connections in the film are his connections. Time runs through Jake's parents' house like water between fingers, and the flow of conversation and associations (between ideas and actions) is reminiscent of the way we think: how we change the past as we're remembering it, how we tinker with fond or fraught memories, improving them here, neglecting minutiae there.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things externalizes a process that takes place in all our heads. Jake and the Young Woman discuss and critique movies, narratives, viruses and psychology — and, in doing so, anticipate any critiques or interpretations or readings we could have of the film. Similar to the ways in which our minds think and self-correct, anticipate rebuttals to arguments we chew over, this movie is self-aware and is constantly self-correcting.
The dialogue is masterful, and a reflection of the media that the characters consume. Because the Young Woman always maintains the position of the expert, her words sound like, in turn, an academic paper or film critique. The form of their dialogue is so peculiar and familiar. Jake's and the Young Woman's sentences rush after each other's like thoughts tumbling one after the other. Again and again, the Young Woman's thoughts and words are interrupted by Jake's words and hers are never picked back up again, as though forgotten. Everything is linked to Jake's character, his memories, his future, his knowledge. Throughout the film, events showing Jake's sadness and loneliness pile up, becoming increasingly complicated as the movie goes on, without hope of being resolved in the way we expect of movies, and more in line with an unromanticized life.
Buckley's Young Woman character is one of the most intriguing, captivating, and complex characters in recent memory. The Young Woman is the trope of the manic pixie dream girl turned on her head. She is Jake's idealized woman who could be named anything; maybe she is the aggregate of all the women Jake has known. Whoever she is in relation to Jake, she is also her own character. Self-aware, she wrestles for autonomy, for an exit out of Jake's narrative. Vibrant and confused as Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, she fights to suppress her disgust for Jake out of fear of being rude.
On a technical level, the film is beyond reproach, with stellar performances, stunning set design, and even some amazing dance choreography. Collette is magnificent as always: a nervous and sick mother in no way like her role in Hereditary. Thewlis is delightful as the father: warm and kind, smiling and also absent. Plemons as Jake is so believable and familiar: afraid of losing his Young Woman, embarrassed about his parents, and physically removed and always on the periphery of the screen in the way that we ourselves are always taken for granted in our minds. Buckley's performance is spot on, beguiling as she wins over the parents all the while squirming away from Jake, and from the story.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is so many things and rewards with multiple views. Kaufman has created a beautiful and unnerving work of art with this film. If anything, among so many other interpretations, this movie is an illuminating dramatization of the secret inner workings of our minds. (Netflix)