“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
This Oscar Wilde quote, spoken by a character in the new film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” is the perfect key to help viewers unlock its many thematic mysteries. By this film’s end, you will certainly have questions. You will be confused and perplexed and possibly disturbed. And it is my hope that you will find this, as I did, to be one of the finest films of 2020.
Like David Lynch, Woody Allen, and David Mamet, the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman are undeniably unique and recognizable. Their work has a certain cadence and the themes explored are constant, and almost always, unique.
For a long while I have put Charlie Kaufman amongst great screenwriters/filmmakers such as those mentioned, as his screenplays are as stunning as they are interesting. His is a distinctive voice that makes you pay attention. You cannot miss a moment of a Charlie Kaufman film or you might miss important clues to its mysteries.
However, Kaufman is not interested in big payoffs or wrapping up everything to appease filmgoers. As a writer and filmmaker his intentions are here, on the screen. It isn’t Kaufman’s job to baby-step us through. It is for us to piece together. We may need to see a Charlie Kaufman film more than once to get it or we may see it multiple times and still not grasp what he is saying. This is what makes him such an exciting and important voice in cinema.
Kaufman’s current release, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” is based on the complicated book by Ian Reid. It is the story of—well—let me try.
A woman (called Lucy at first but who is referred to by different names) is driving with her boyfriend Jake to meet his parents. It is a bleak winter night and the snow is pounding down on their car. In voiceover, we hear the woman say that she is thinking of ending things. Is it suicide? Is she ending things with her boyfriend? Her career?
Kaufman purposefully disorients his audience by intercutting scenes of an old janitor preparing for his late-night shift cleaning a school. Who this man is and what his importance to the story will be is not immediately clear. I am sure Kaufman was smiling during his design of these sequences.
Right away we are introduced to the fact that the film’s title is itself a mystery and the introduction of these two characters buries any modern filmmaking conventions. We are in the car with them for a good portion of the film’s beginning. The tone Kaufman sets allows us to experience the suffocation the woman is feeling with their relationship. Or is it her life? Career?
When we get to Jake’s rural Oklahoma house, the storm has gotten worse and from the moment the two step out of the car, the surreal aura of Kaufman’s film takes shape.
Jesse Buckley is the woman and the great Jesse Plemmons plays Jake. In the car we see the skill both actors possess and each one is expertly deep inside their characters before we get to the house. We do not know where this is going or who these two will turn out to be but Buckley and Plemmons have introduced assured performances that solidify our investment in the film.
Once inside the house, it seems to take years for Jakes’s parents to come downstairs. While waiting, the woman mulls about the house and sees the family dog occasionally come into the room to be pet and shake off the snow he has been apparently playing in. But, as the woman states, there is no sign of a dog living there. In fact, Jimmy never appears until he is mentioned. Then he leaves the room although we never see him leave. Nor do we see him enter.
When Mom and Dad finally come down the stairs, they seem extremely welcoming to the woman but never really acknowledge their son save for a side handshake from Dad. Immediately Jake is uncomfortable around his parents and his moods change. At the dinner table, he even becomes aggressive when his mother incorrectly calls the Trivial Pursuit Genus edition the “genius” edition.
Toni Collette and David Thewlis play Jake’s parents and both do marvelous work. I will say, without giving anything away, that the two actors give a few different great performances throughout their screen time. Remember, we are in the world of the man who wrote a film where people could literally get inside the head of actor John Malkovich.
After a while, the woman and Jake leave, as she needs to return for work the next day. She keeps saying her “shift.” The story they tell the parents of their meeting says the two met at a bar where she was with a friend and he saw her from afar. Or was it trivia night and she was impressed with his knowledge? Or was she a waitress who accepted a date from her customer? Or is she a physicist, which she states she is, and Jake sometimes confirms? Are they even in a deep relationship? Do they truly know one another or themselves?
This is a film of bread crumbs. Every line of dialogue and each scene are leading us to the bigger picture. It is a smart move to have the audience immediately question our narrator’s validity. She claims to have a distaste for poetry but later recites a powerful verse that she composed herself. Her coat changes colors from scene to scene as does her occupation. A a matter of fact, the validity of each character’s place in the story is never something to bet on. Almost every moment I describe could benefit from quotation marks.
Kaufman’s adaptation of Reid’s book allows the filmmaker wide parameters in which to construct his head-trip. The basement door with scratch marks that makes Jake uneasy. The pictures that have seemingly different faces. The aforementioned dog. And just who IS this old man janitor character?
For an audience that has its thinking cap on and who pays attention, all will be revealed—pretty much.
Kaufman’s extreme deviance from the novel’s narrative Is not mere sleight-of-hand, as the filmmaker has a deeper story to tell and important philosophical and psychological issues to examine, and he does so as only Charlie Kaufman can.
It is not cliched to say that Kaufman’s filmmaking style here is Lynchian and more than a little Kafkaesque. His film plays not with alternate realities but states of mind and identities. Kaufman’s screenplay examines what constitutes self- worth, such as the scene where Jake is embarrassed that he won an award for diligence rather than sharpness.
I am quite sure that this is a tale of regrets and how one looks back at a life of failures. A certain character has certainly had a few. Spoilers prevent me from saying just who and the regrets are not so easily explained yet, by film’s end, they become clearer and help the film achieve an emotional level that genuinely surprised me.
I was profoundly moved by the end of Charlie Kaufman’s latest. This is certainly his most challenging film, and that is saying a lot from the maker of “Synecdoche, New York.” Its mysteries are many and I cannot promise every viewer will come away satisfied, but to those daring enough to give themselves over to the mind of Charlie Kaufman, the complex and brilliantly constructed “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will challenge you. Whatever the outcome regarding your thoughts on the film, it will give you something extremely rare in today’s films: an intellectual tonic of a cinematic experience.