I’m Thinking of Ending Things
In Charlie Kaufman’s new film, two characters driving through a snowy night discuss John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. “The idiot symbolism is enough to make you wanna hoot, but this two hour and 35 minute movie leaves you too groggy to do more than moan,” drawls Jessie Buckley’s protagonist, grinding into the register of a jaded film student. Knowing Kaufman’s addiction to meta-commentary, it’s impossible he didn’t intend this as a wink at the audience. By now two-thirds of the way through his two-and-a-quarter-hour-long work, we are invited to apply this harsh reading to what we are watching now. But as usual, Kaufman substitutes awareness for solution to his problems. His knowledge that I’m Thinking of Ending Things could induce a fog of irritated confusion in its audience doesn’t stop it from happening.
There’s certainly symbolism here. Whether it’s “idiot” will depend on the viewer. Buckley’s student (whose name and major eerily change every fifteen minutes or so, stripping her of a lucid identity) is on a day trip with her new boyfriend to meet his parents at their remote Oklahoma farmhouse, in the middle of a raging snowstorm. Kaufman’s mastery over small and highly discomfiting details is in full force. The parents (the always excellent Toni Colette and an able David Thewlis) talk in platitudes, their faces twitching with a strange fear; a chilling story about maggot-ridden pigs turns into a glistening ham joint on the dinner table; a pet dog pops up silently every now and again, only to shake itself dry for a long moment and disappear again.
The horror locales – creepy farmhouse, abandoned school, isolated roadside cafe – give the proceedings some of the juicy anticipation that comes with a genre flick. But Kaufman denies us the comfort of tropes, opting instead for bizarre images, like a bin overflowing with empty ice cream cups, that determinedly tighten the tension. Buckley’s brief flashes of inward vision read like dream images (there is something of Lynch’s one-minute nightmare Premonition Following an Evil Deed about this picture, although Lynch had a far stronger handle on his symbols). The work of piecing together the story as it unfolds constitutes a large amount of the film’s dread.
But despite his strong control of mood, Kaufman doesn’t quite stick his point. It seems so obvious that he would choose to make a film where the boundaries between characters are blurred to the point of dissolution. Just like in his last solo-directed effort, Synecdoche, New York, the cast essentially opens one mouth to utter a single philosophical message: “We’re all gonna die.” Here there are fewer characters and their superficial differences are more stark (although they might be more profoundly identical to one another underneath), but Kaufman seems just as resolutely unwilling to create any counterpoint to his point, any personality to them beside what they can reflect glassily off each other (and off him). Like the 2008 behemoth, the running time feels twice what it actually is, and the picture has about three endings, each one less convincing than the last. And again, one feels that a different director would have tautened Kaufman’s script, stripping away some of the rampant self-indulgence that mars his genius.
There is so much to like here. The cast is stunning; Buckley’s range is a joy to behold, and Plemons’s expressively stolid features (he makes such a thing possible) glare sullenly and contort terrifyingly. The dialogue, though coming in long, endless-feeling stretches, is full of wit; there are occasional moments of laughter that break through and relieve the leaden surface of the long car journeys. Best of all, the picture’s open-endedness seems to serve its source material (Iain Reid’s 2016 novel) well. Better not to wrap up such an oddly-shaped parcel too neatly. But its stylistic flair and obvious brains are unaccompanied by any more subtle emotion than unease and a kind of clinical despair. While it certainly bears rewatching, I’m Thinking of Ending Things might leave you too groggy even to moan.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is released digitally on demand on 4th September 2020.
Watch the trailer for I’m Thinking of Ending Things here: