I’m Thinking of Ending Things is classed as a psychological horror, which in many ways it is, but probably not in the way you may imagine it to be. And while this may be of little comfort to some, that also doesn’t mean it falls into the ‘elevated’ horror category. Rather, Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of Iain Reid’s 2016 novel speaks to the existential horror of existence, attempting to dissect the lies, distractions and layers of self-protection we build in order to block out the starkness of reality.
So yeah, it’s a Charlie Kaufman film told in the most Charlie Kaufman manner you could think of. As all his directorial efforts have done in one way or another, I’m Thinking of Ending Things focusses on time, love, relationships, memory and loneliness. It holds a clear synergy with Synecdoche, New York, which even amongst fans of the writer-director has proved to be his most divisive work, although there’s every chance this could also challenge for that title in time.
As you expect, Kaufman leaves a lot to unpack in a film that demands a re-watch – well, more than one, if you can. It’s a heavy, two-hour plus experience that seeks every bit of your attention as the denseness of the dialogue and static nature of some scenes pull you into its dimension. To some, it may seem like pretentious nonsense with little or no meaning, while for others the inner-scream, almost nihilistic, ruminations will resonate in the most uncomfortable way possible. It’s an opaque road movie nightmare filled with sequences that shouldn’t be viewed in a literal sense, even if the words spoken often cut to the bone.
The loose story is based around the visit of a Jessie Buckley’s Lucy (or is that Lucia, Louisa or Amy?) and her boyfriend of 6 weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons). We meet them on their snow-bound drive to the isolated home of Jake’s parents, played by David Thewlis (with a broad Yorkshire accent) and Toni Collette (they remain known just as Mother and Father). It’s about as disconcerting as a meeting with your other half’s parents could be, filled with stilted conversations, embarrassing reveals and ugly silences. Aside from the strangeness of Jake’s parents, Lucy is also seeing pictures of herself hanging on the wall, while the dog can’t stop shaking and there’s a creepy looking basement she has been told to keep away from.
With the narrative told from Lucy’s perspective, we are also privy her inner monologue, which starts with her contemplating ending her relationship with Jake before delving deeper into her subconscious fears. Meeting Jake’s parents only exacerbates those concerns, projecting how their coupledom would only eventually turn into another version of what the parents have become. Once the romance and spark has fizzled out, Kaufman suggests all that’s left is a long, dull and empty plod of co-dependency towards death (which we do everything to avoid talking about) as our bodies and minds eventually fail us.
References are made to Wordsworth, Pauline Kael (a verbatim recollection of her review of A Woman Under the Influence), Tolstoy, David Foster Wallace, Robert Zemeckis (which is very funny but hard to tell if derogatory or not) and Billy Crystal (“He’s a Nancy,” says Jake’s dad). Lucy reveals one of her own poems, a grim, two-minute lambaste about the dreariness of everyday existence (which while hilarious – hopefully it was meant to be in this context – is actually penned by Eva H.D.). There are points where the conversations between Lucy and Jake might seem like nothing more than mouth pieces for Kaufman, but it is probably more meta than that. Perhaps he means that our bright, eager and spongy brains soak everything up until we become what we consume, leaving us to recycle the same ideas and beliefs and claim them as our own. Of the many quotes heard in the film, Lucy’s use of Oscar Wilde’s “Most people are other people,” summarises the above far more concisely.
Both Buckley and Plemons are perfectly cast in their roles, with Lucy already tasked with assuming the role of mother to Jake’s passive aggressive insecurities. Also pocketed throughout the film is the presence of an old high school janitor (Guy Boyd), as we watch him clean up hallways and classrooms during his working day. He has slightly more prominence in the final act, which is where things really go off the beaten path to encompass dance and theatrical performance, Kaufman taking bold leaps in the hope he’s laid enough breadcrumbs for us to follow. Mostly it works, and plaudits to anyone who can decipher its meaning on a first viewing. Then again, there is likely no literal interpretation and the mood it generates is the sole intention.
An air of melancholy hangs over I’m Thinking of Ending Things (which assumes its double meaning once the themes reveal themselves), with only the occasional glimmer of light flickering through. In doing so it strips life down to the bare minimum, exposing the search for purpose and meaning most of us know doesn’t exist yet largely refuse to acknowledge until the very end. After all, we live to an arbitrary version of time, become confused when it appears to move too fast, work to the bone, tire our bodies out, cling onto the past and eventually turn to dust. Then we pass the burden onto the next generation knowing they can’t figure it out either. It’s hardly joyful, but at least Kaufman is being honest, and beyond the dreams of Hollywood, it’s the very least we can search for amongst the never-ending deluge of images and words that shape our lives.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things arrives on Netflix from September 4.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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