I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Charlie Kaufman’s newest film is a psychological drama with elements of “magical realism”. In the story, one young woman (Jessie Buckley) travels in a snowstorm with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents in their farmhouse. She is one eccentric and “artsy” person who is unsure of her future with her boyfriend and who often receives mysterious messages on her mobile phone. That is all we can be sure of because, the rest, including all the details, is soon called into question as Jake’s parents start behaving oddly and the characters are forced down the memory lane. Unfortunately, all the philosophy, psychology, good acting and the sumptuous cinematography by no other than Łukasz Żal, cinematographer behind Cold War (2018), cannot rescue this latest cinematic riddle by Kaufman. Wrapped in layers upon layers of tedious and predictable poetic and philosophical musings (or rather outbursts), the film becomes bland very early on and no pretty decorative “wrapping” (including all the wonderful design and wallpaper in the film) can hide the fact that, inside, our cinematic “enigma” is one weird mix of different, well-trodden on, pretentious and almost meaningless ideas.
To be fair, Kaufman does aspire to show something meaningful and philosophical in his film – to make some heartfelt statement on the passage of time, death, memories, lost dreams and hopes, and the fact that we all have to age (as well as come to terms with the process of ageing). However, the never-ending speeches or rather outburst by the characters in dark cars and dimly-lit living rooms on the nature of art, poetry or fiction does more of a disservice to this high aim of Kaufman than anything else. There is something painfully pretentious in the idea of each character taking a book (such as Anna Kavan’s Ice) or quote from somewhere and starting randomly musing on the meaning of it – we often hear such banal statements as “everything has to die” or “humans cannot live in the present so they invented hope” or “life can be brutal on the farm”. We hardly feel any emotion or conviction, and these frequent “philosophical” references to either poets, books, films or musicals (indeed) hardly go anywhere at all. What should have been emotional – only comes off as bewildering, and what should have been cerebral – only appears flatulent and artificial.
Perhaps the reference to the basement in the film is supposed to hint at some hidden trauma or unresolved issue buried deep within the psyche of the characters (similar to The Babadook (2014)), and this situation may also concern professional ambitions connected to the theatre and dancing; a nightgown; parents and childhood. It is possible for us to start trying to piece together the different puzzle pieces we are given, but then the question becomes – would we even bother to do so in the first place? Kaufman did not try very hard to make us want to probe deeper into the mystery in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The film only scratches the surface in terms of emotion, belief or eeriness, and, even though there exists an explanation as to the ending (see here), we may just not care enough to start looking.
I have not read the book by Iain Reid on which the film is based, but Kaufman does seem to start recycling in this film some ideas and details found in his previous films, including in Adaptation (2002), Synecdoche, New York (2008) and in Anomalisa (2015). This especially happens in film’s second half when all the exciting bits are already behind us story-wise. I cannot compare the film to the book, but the oddest of elements has got to be the fact that, in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman starts to almost simulate Hereditary (2018) and includes a number of other scenes that hint at the idea that we are about to watch some horror film (especially since the supporting actress is also Toni Collette from Hereditary; the setting is an eerie-looking farm house; and we have a gloomy atmosphere). These “horror” ideas mysteriously spring up and die down throughout the film, and this only adds to the general feeling of the film’s overall directionlessness and confusion.
There is no doubt that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a beautifully-presented film with some good acting, but, unfortunately, it also happens to be one time-wasting exercise in awkwardness, exasperation and pretentiousness. 5/10