Charlie Brownlee reviews Charlie Kaufman's latest feature. WARNING! Spoilers ahead.
I have a love/hate relationship with Charlie Kaufman’s movies. And by “love/hate," I mean I love his movies for the same reasons that I hate them. The Manhattan-based screenwriter-turned-director has been perplexing and upsetting audiences for over two decades with a career that includes Adaptation (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Synecdoche, New York (2008). If you’re familiar with any of these movies, you probably know how you’ll feel by the time you finish a Kaufman movie: confused, distressed, and altogether numb. His movies can feel like surreal misadventures, and other times like an intense therapy session with a good hug afterward. Released on Netflix, Kaufman’s latest movie, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, seems to say what we’ve all been thinking about this year.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about a woman’s road trip with her new boyfriend to meet his parents at their distant farmhouse. But as all Charlie Kaufman’s movies are, this is hardly the real story. Based on Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, the movie is a deep dive into the human condition and our desperate attempts to connect to each other in any way — themes not unfamiliar to Kaufman.
The Young Woman (Jessie Buckley)... what’s her name? Don’t worry about it, it changes
several times throughout the movie until you start to question whether she’s even there at all. She barrels through the snow with her new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons), a young man named Jake. Most of the movie is spent in the car with them as they converse: he mansplains David Foster Wallace and she recites poetry she claims to have written from memory (she didn’t — it’s a poem by Eva H.D.). If an extended car trip filled with dialogue about philosophy, getting older, mental illness, and John Cassavetes seems like a trivial thing to spend the majority of a movie on, you’re probably right. But it’s the incredible performances by Buckley and Plemons that so subtly reveal the inner thoughts of these characters. Their drive together is suspenseful in its uncomfortableness, with the howling storm outside reflecting the character’s own chaotic thoughts. She’s thinking of ending things, and he’s just hoping things will work out.
The movie sheds its (mostly) coherent tone once they arrive at the parents’ house. In two of the strangest and best-supporting roles this year, Toni Colette and David Thewlis play the parents you wouldn’t dare bring anyone home to meet. That typical Kaufman surrealism takes center stage when Jake’s parents grow older and younger, literally shifting through different stages of life over the course of dinner. The Young Woman wanders through the house watching Jake’s fears unfold before her like viewing paintings in a museum. It’s hardly a true “horror” movie, but this is ultimately where the movie starts to present ideas that keep you up at night: the responsibility of taking care of your parents, their deaths, and perhaps the most frightening — what if you end up just like them?
By the time the two leave the house, you don’t even question the flowing of time that just happened. The closest thing to an explanation is a single line by the Young Woman: “Do we move through time, or does time move through us?” But it doesn’t need an explanation. The themes of reality, time, and the space between us are so deeply ingrained at this point that nothing needs to make sense anymore. We’re all constantly plowing through time ourselves like a car in a snowstorm, desperately reaching out for someone else to hold onto.
If the movie feels timely, that’s probably on purpose. All of Kaufman’s movies manage to stay relevant, existing in worlds of their own. But in a year like 2020, full of seemingly endless fear, doubt, and worry, I’m Thinking of Ending Things can be overwhelming. It’s been a scary year. I’ve had countless fears of mass panic, social and political unrest, environmental disaster... you name it. Most of all, however, I’ve had many fears about myself: where do I fit in this world? What will life be like in five, ten, fifty years? How can I possibly stay positive in a world where I’m afraid to look at the news?
For many people — myself included — movies and television have been a relief these past few months. Never have they felt more like pure escapism than they do now. The last thing I want when I sit down to watch something is to be reminded of those fears of mine. But these personal fears are exactly what reverberates throughout I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Themes of aging and regret linger through the young couple’s conversations, and Jake’s general distress at the world he lives in finally builds up into an astounding finale.
Because of this, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is certainly not for everyone. It’s personal, frightening, and difficult to talk about, but this is why the movie thrives. In peeling back the curtain on the fears we all have, Kaufman is able to provide a glimpse of hope for our troubled times: that yes, we’re all scared, confused and worried, but we’re all together. ✴
Charlie Brownlee is an eighteen-year-old writer and student living in western North Carolina. He likes movies and people and airports and mornings. You can find him on Twitter @charliejuststop.