I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
★★ / ★★★★
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will be remembered as a minor work of writer-director Charlie Kaufman. It is composed of elements that could make a great film—a statement—about life, death, aging, and the sweet moments in between, but these components are not put together in a way that inspires immediate recognition of precise thought, feeling, or past experience without wringing out the brain for possible meanings. To say that the picture is weird is inaccurate; it isn’t—at least not really. I’ve seen far stranger movies—Guy Maddin’s works like “The Saddest Music in the World” and “Brand Upon the Brain!” quickly come to mind. As the movie goes on, it unravels into a tangent rather than providing a strong closure for its thesis.
The most fun I’ve had while sitting through the film is coming up with ideas in regards to what’s really going on just underneath its typical setup: a woman (we are introduced to her as “Lucy” but she is later called “Louisa” and a few other names), played by Jessie Buckley, travels with Jake (Jesse Plemons) to the country so she can meet his parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis). They’ve been dating for six weeks. Or is it seven? Lucy is unsure.
Via narration, we learn that Lucy feels as though the relationship is not going anywhere and is considering breaking it off. Right from the get-go, there is something strange. It appears—rather it feels—as though Jake can read Lucy’s mind. Is this actually the case or is he simply intuitive? We spend twenty minutes in the car as the couple discuss science, novels, poetry, and movies. Is it possible viewers are meant to feel trapped with these characters? In a Kaufman picture, anything is possible.
The farmhouse sequences are thoroughly engaging, from the tour of the barn with the symbolic sheep and the story about pigs being eaten alive to really bizarre and erratic behavior by Jake’s parents. It brings to mind haunted house movies and supernatural novels in how the writer-director plays with time and makes observations about memories, impressions, and forgotten details—ghosts that linger—not just Lucy’s, or possibly Jake’s, but our own. At some point, I wondered if the story is an echo: Lucy and Jake repeating the same day over and over again until either a wrong is set right or light is shed upon ignorance. It also made me consider how I process time, where I am in my life, what I’ve experienced and have yet to experience. Clearly, there is poetry to these scenes.
I also found the events inside the house to be riotously funny at times, from the image of a dog drying itself as if stuck in a time loop and Collette’s scene-stealing laughter turning into desperate wailing within a span of five seconds to morbid possibilities of what the basement contains to Thewlis’ interpretation of dementia. This is peculiarity done right. We are challenged with what to do with the images we are provided. I found humor. Some, I imagine, may find horror. Or sadness. It shows the helplessness and frailty that comes with old age.
Far less effective is when Lucy and Jake are back in the car. This is when the film starts to get repetitive. On the surface, it is different from the previous car sequence. They are traveling in near total darkness. There is a snowstorm outside. Lucy’s patience is wearing thin because Jake seems unable to take a hint that she just wants to get home. He suggests they stop by for ice cream. Is this supposed to be a portrait of mid- to late-stage marriage? The pacing slows as more ideas are thrown around… only this time there is minimal tension due to familiarity.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” based on the novel by Iain Reid, offers plenty of foreplay but no powerful punchline. The latter half is so desultory (“experimental” or “unconventional,” if one were to be kind) that at some point, we sit through an interpretive dance and a musical number—right after another. Although I recognize what it is trying say with these overt performances, they remain just that—performances—instead of Kaufman putting what he has to impart into context (loneliness, regret, longings, imaginings). It’s unfortunate because the picture ends with humanity but decorations around it distract from the wrinkles that actually matter.