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Non-Review Review: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

“There is no objective reality,” explains Jake late in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. “You know there’s no colour in the universe, right? Only in the brain.”

This seems to be as close to a thesis statement at I’m Thinking of Ending Things dares to offer. Charlie Kaufman’s latest work is a dense and surrealist exploration of the fragility of memory and identity, and the blurred boundaries that exist between the inside and the outside. The story is relatively simple. A young woman accompanies her boyfriend on a trip to have dinner with his parents. She needs to get home, but there is a snow storm. As the couple journey into rural America, things begin to slowly but surely unravel.

Snow escape.

There’s been an abundance of cinema recently about the collapse of time and reality, the sense of a universe folding into itself – Palm Springs, TENET, Bill and Ted Face the Music. These films are made all the more uncanny for having been produced long before the current global pandemic unravelled our sense of space and time, but seem to speak perfectly to it. That anxiety that all of history is happening at once and that “cause” and “effect” are unmoored as reality itself contorts and bends.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things stands apart from these other films, as one might expect of a Charlie Kaufman project. I’m Thinking of Ending Things has a greater interiority. The film seems to unfold in vast snowy wilderness, but it seems just as accurate to suggest that it unfolds in the writer’s imagination. Perhaps it isn’t time and reality that contort, but simply the protagonist’s understanding of these concepts. Then again, do these ideas exist in some absolute and objective form somewhere, or are they just concepts that people label so as to feel more comfortable?

Table discussion for later.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not a movie with a lot of answers, but it does not claim to be. Indeed, like a lot of writers and directors who have their works mistaken for puzzle boxes, Charlie Kaufman has always been a writer more felt than understood. I’m Thinking of Ending Things often feels like a snapshot of a feeling, and that feeling is deep unease layered with growing discomfort. It quickly becomes clear that this young woman is not taking a conventional road trip and this dinner is anything but normal.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is as unsettling and uncanny as any horror movie, but more effective for grounding that discomfort in surreal absurdism. It’s hard to precisely classify I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and that’s what makes the film so compelling. It’s anchored in a set of tremendous performances that help keep it from ever coming off the tracks as reality and fantasy, dream and nightmare, blur into one another. It is hard to explain exactly what is happening in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but it is tremendous.

The middle of nowhere.

“Most people are other people,” explains the young woman at the centre of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. She is talking more literally than most. Over the course of the film, she becomes a tremendously malleable figure. Her name, her job, her face seem to shift between cuts and scenes. She talks to get home to start work on a project for work, but the nature of that project is shifting like sand: maybe it involves rabies, maybe it involves John Cassavetes, maybe she’s a waitress.

Visiting with her boyfriend’s parents, the couple offer varying accounts of how they met. Sometimes these contradictions are caught and elaborated on, a slip of the tongue (or perhaps a slip of the brain in Jake’s parlance) that is easily explained. Sometimes those contradictions are harder to reconcile. Sometimes they seems like real memories, sometimes they seem to have been taken from a ditzy romantic comedy. One moment a picture on the wall of Jake’s house seems to contain her, but a moment later it’s him.

There’s not a lot going on upstairs.

The puzzles mount very quickly. Scratches on a basement door suggest a pet dog, but Jake has never mentioned such a pet before – until it suddenly materialises. There’s a strange odour, and the dog is always wet, even when it hasn’t been outside. There’s an urn in Jake’s childhood bedroom which suggests it belongs to a similar dog, one with the same name and of the same breed. It’s all very strange and very uncomfortable, even before Jake’s parents seem to fluctuate dramatic in age from one scene to the next.

In this strange little corner of the world, time is broken. Pristine swing sets sit outside dilapidated houses. It’s never entirely clear how long Jake and his girlfriend have been in a particular place. Kaufman turns up the ambiguity in his framing and editing. It constantly seems like the old farmhouse might swallow its guests whole. Even when she’s in the room with other characters, the young woman seems like she might as well be the only person in a hostile world.

Forkin’ interesting.

“People like to think of themselves as points moving through time,” she explains at one point. “But I think it’s probably the opposite. We are stationary and time passes through us, blowing like cold wind.” Progression is important, entropy is bad. “Jake is a nice guy, but it’s not going anywhere,” she explains her decision. When the couple stop for some refreshments on the journey, a cashier warns her, “You don’t have to go forward in time. You can stay here.” It’s a tempting thought, but also a grotesque one.

Early in the film, before venturing into the house, Jake takes her on a tour of the farm. She notices that the dead lambs are piled up in the snow, and asks what will happen to them. “They’re frozen solid for now, so they’re fine,” Jake explains. What if a person were to try to stop the flow of time through them? What would that mean? Would it be equivalent to the deep freeze of this cold winter and those ice cream cups? Would it be death?

Car-ry on.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is deliberately and cheekily oblique, but it returns to Kaufman’s driving preoccupations. The very title is an invocation of death and annihilation, the fear of obliteration. “I’m thinking of ending things,” the protagonist continuously repeats to herself, like a sort of madness mantra. “Once this thought arrives, it stays,” she tells the audience. It punctuates other thoughts, even those thoughts that would seem to contradict it. “I’m thinking of ending things — Jake is great — I’m thinking of ending things.”

Repeatedly, characters meditate on the idea of life – the question of whether life exists as nothing more than an end of itself. “Everything wants to live,” she argues when Jake remarks upon the horror of the rabies virus. Jake searches clumsily and desperately for counter-examples, from self-sacrificing ants to suicide bombers. “So not everything wants to live.” Only a short while later, she adds a necessary qualification, “Everything has to die.”

Chilling out.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things keeps coming back to this fundamental question of reality and time, the idea of life as an intersection of those two things. At one point, Jake introduces his girlfriend to his father as a painter. She explains that she paints landscapes, but in the hopes of expressing her emotions through them. She doesn’t paint other people, she impresses her own emotional reality on the world. (“How can a picture of a field be sad without a sad person looking sad in the field?” the father responds. The answer is that it depends who is looking at the field.)

Outside and inside are mirrored in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the cold of the storm outside perhaps reflected in the chilly atmosphere insider the house. However, it goes deeper than that. If I’m Thinking of Ending Things suggests that the world has no objective reality except that which the observer imposes on it, then what about the ideas that the observer reflects back from their own experiences and their own frame of reference.

Getting heady.

When the young woman suggests that nobody is truly themselves, she points out that so much of identity is passively absorbed and soaked in, little of it truly generated internally. She is fascinated to meet Jake’s parents, reflecting to herself that “the child being father of the man and all.” As if hearing her thoughts, Jake responds, “Are you a fan of Wordsworth, then?” Later, as the couple argue over the quality of Women Under the Influence, she essentially regurgitates an entire Pauline Kael review as her own opinion.

As she attempts to justify her decision to “end things” with Jake, she begins to rewrite history. The details of her first date story change – some subtly, some obviously. What had once seemed cute is suddenly creepy, what was once endearing is now monstrous. Memory works like that. It is ultimately a slave to the present. It is rewritten and recontextualised, reworked and reinvented, reframed and repositioned, all depending on where a person finds themselves standing. If so, then what does any of that mean?

Buckleying under the pressure.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t have any easy answers to these questions, instead capturing a broader moods of dread and uncertainty. As writer and director, Kaufman pushes the film into the realm of the uncanny. Spaces seem to exist in a void of black and white. Even fairly standard settings like a rural homestead or a local school take on an eerie and uncomfortable quality. Molly Hughes’ production design is outstanding.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is anchored in a set of strong and compelling performances that serve to ground a film that could easily become too far removed from reality or drift so far away from a recognisable emotional reality. In particular, both Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons do great work in the lead roles, making the characters seem lived in and developed in a way that prevents the movie from feeling too much like an abstraction.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a powerful and haunting piece of work about the nightmare of the malleability of memory and identity.

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