There's a little "i" deep inside the existential heart of Charlie Kaufman's latest, and I'd dare say greatest, motion picture i'm thinking of ending things, easily the best of a trio of movies fueling Hollywood's cinematic tiptoe toward cinematic normal life in a COVID-19 world.
It's difficult to describe i'm thinking of ending things without spoiling the surprise of actually watching it, though it's a weird one even by Kaufman's lofty standards yet it's also, perhaps, his most emotionally honest and resonant film to date. It works in every possible way, nearly flawless while setting itself in a world that is far from flawless. It is as much a cinematic cousin to Meet the Parents as it is Kaufman's own Synecdoche, New York with a straightforward premise that takes labyrinthian turns and inversions that actually matter.
Based on a 2016 novel by Iain Reid by the same name, i'm thinking of ending things exists very much in Kaufman's voice. The novel plopped itself down squarely into the world of psychological horror, though Kaufman's spin is decidedly more ambiguous and less willing to plant itself inside any single genre.
We meet a young woman, her name is never fully established, as she prepares to enter a car with a young man she hesitantly calls her boyfriend as they venture out into a snowy Oklahoma night for a trip home to visit the young man's parents.
Everything feels normal, at least momentarily.
The young couple is played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, a laughably absurd common ground that would feel like a narrative/casting gimmick if it all didn't play out so incredibly sublimely. They've only been together several weeks we're told, over and over again, and it appears this relationship has an end in the not so distant future.
"i'm thinking of ending things."
De Niro is nowhere to be found here, yet it's practically undeniable that there does always seem to be this third character waiting in the wings, personified at various times by the back-and-forth swishing of windshield wipers or the steadily falling snow or the slight whispers of the wind or, even more so, the inner dialogue that is so pervasive one swears it must be audible.
Buckley is rapidly proving herself to be one of contemporary cinema's greatest actresses, an actress of tremendous range and an actress able to adopt nearly accent in a way unrivaled only by the great Meryl Streep. The Brit is masterful here, though perhaps that's a tad unfair given that we're not exactly privy to much knowledge about this young woman at all who is, at times, known by Lucy and Amy and other names that may or may not be accurate.
Buckley's inner dialogue with herself is far more engaging than any words exchanged with her boyfriend, whom we do know as Jake, though if you're listening carefully, and this is a Kaufman film so you should be, you'll realize that far more is going on here than a simple inner dialogue.
This is a Kaufman film. Everything has meaning. While there are filmmakers who claim as much, Kaufman truly lives into it in extraordinary ways. Every word. Every image. Every sound. Every costume.
It all means something.
Buckley undefined provides much of the definition for everything that unfolds in the film, though definition has never really been one of Kaufman's stronger qualities. Jake is almost an afterthought, though he's an ever present one whose presence is essential.
Being honest, I'm not sure I'd have ever believed Plemons to have this type of performance in him. A solid character actor for sure, Plemons is quietly incredible as the sort of socially maladroit joe we often find in a Kaufman flick. Jake is less pronounced than a good majority of Kaufman's male characters, slightly dominating and self-absorbed yet more than a little vulnerability seeping through. Jake somehow finds human connection best expressed through name-dropping philosophers whose works he seems to have Cliff noted and a relentless urge to mansplain areas of knowledge for which he's clearly ill-equipped. The musical Oklahoma! carries a sweet spot in the film, a sort of reference point for past and present and dreams fulfilled and dreams never quite forgotten.
The film's psychological horror vibes are amped up once the two arrive at Jake's childhood abode, a rural farmhouse not far removed from Get Out an others. You will reasonably expect a rather horrific turn, though Kaufman leans more toward absurdity than outright horror and psychological trauma of the soul-defining type. If you've ever questioned the importance of production design in a film, i'm thinking of ending things provides a textbook lesson in the ways a good production designer can provide substance and meaning and depth for a film. The work of Molly Hughes is exceptional here, from the drab wallpaper feels like it contains the souls of generations to more than a few nic-nacs and probably a few paddywacks.
After a brief, rather darkly humorous tour of everything but the family home, Jake's parents enter the scenario and spark bewilderment in the most jarring of ways. Toni Collette, easily one of this generation's most under-appreciated actresses, is awe-inspiring as Jake's mother, a larger-than-life caricature of marital adoration meets fading mental wellness. She fawns over Jake and her husband, played to perfection by David Thewlis, but does so exaggeratingly and in ways that feel uncomfortable and unsettling. They're an odd couple, dysfunctionally compatible it would seem, and there's never a moment when Jake feels comfortable in his own home.
If you're watching through all of this, and I'll keep driving home the necessity of watching carefully, you'll see not so subtle shifts in costuming, age, behavior, relationships, and much more. It's as if we're watching different points in time at a single time, though amidst it all we're never completely sure if what we're watching is even real or simply imagined.
Despite a definite lack of emotional energy, i'm thinking of ending things is a bundle of emotions expressed and mopped away. There's a constant sense of regret and less, a melancholy that frequently turns i'm thinking of ending things into a lamentation of life and love and meaning.
Throughout i'm thinking of ending things, a lonely janitor will periodically be observed as he goes about his days in a high school where life is fresh and potential is limitless but his is not. We don't know his story, at least not initially, but we grow to care about him from beginning to end. Kudos to Guy Boyd for creating images that still won't leave my mind.
The lensing of Lukasz Zal is essential here, his boxy weariness enhancing the film's emotional claustrophobia and sense of narrow time and space. A good portion of i'm thinking of ending things takes place on the blizzard-challenged roads of Oklahoma in a dream-like state that is part Lynchian but most certainly all Kaufman. There's a shift, subtle but obvious, as our couple leaves the rural farm to head back home where their break-up seems inevitable despite fleeting moments of bonding and humanity throughout their visit. The snow is different, at times seemingly inside the vehicle, and stops at a roadside restaurant and Jake's high school are emotionally and physically creepy.
There's always been a sort of self-awareness to Kaufman's films. I've always pictured it being his own acknowledgement of being along with us on the ride, a sort of all-inclusive immersion. When Buckley's young woman speaks of movies as a "societal malady," one can't help but think about Kaufman and his own creative process. The inner dialogues, as well, are revealing including, rather especially, a practical chanting of film critic Pauline Kael's notorious review panning Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence.
I admit it. I laughed out loud.
There is so much more to discuss. There is so much more to reveal. You will have your theories. I most certainly have mine and somewhere down the road long after the film has been seen we need to find some roadside restaurant where we can sit down over ice cream and talk about the film more in depth.
There are certain truths, however, that must be spoken and are simply undeniable.
Jessie Buckley is simply extraordinary here, capturing the ever-changing essence of an undefined woman and giving her definition without ever giving her away. In films like Beast and Wild Rose, Buckley sparkled and energized and vibrantly captured the screen. Here, however, she shifts and turns and underplays and overplays and sometimes within the same minute becomes an entirely different being.
She never loses us. In fact, she envelopes us.
And again, Plemons is truly exceptional here in a way I'd never have imagined. I shall never doubt again. He drives the film in quieter ways, driving an ill-fated relationship with conviction and purpose and neuroses galore. He never tells us what's going on here, though one can practically feel his unspoken words and decades of regret and loss and failure.
Both Thewlis and Collette find the humanity in characters that seem like caricatures yet are so clearly not. They are bumbling and fumbling and adoring and sad and so many other things we all feel when we return to the home that both built us and knocked us down.
Given only a few moments to truly shine, Guy Boyd most certainly does.
Jay Wadley's original score is among the best of the year, though Kaufman's willingness to occasionally go scoreless is also impressive. Robert Frazen's editing is precise yet fluid enough to allow uncomfortable moments to linger. The aforementioned costuming by Melissa Toth is simply outstanding, shifting with moment and time and age and mood in ways both subtle and shattering.
Then, of course, there's Kaufman. Kaufman expands the universe of Iain Reid's original tale yet does so in a way that remains faithful to the source material and reads between its lines. Remaining more ambiguous than Reid until the very end, Kaufman somehow masterfully portrays both the futility of life and love yet also the hopefulness of it all. It's incredible storytelling and incredible filmmaking.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic