Many viewers will think of ending I’m Thinking of Ending Things not long after it’s started. A cross-dissolve cascade of crude shots details the interior of a farmhouse or an apartment, or the interior of an interior. A woman we have not yet seen is practically mid-narration, telling us something for which we have no context. It feels wrong, off-putting. Something is not right. This is not how movies are supposed to work.
And, again, where is the context? Finally we see the woman, played impossibly by someone, brilliantly by Jessie Buckley. She is standing on the street as puffy snowflakes start to fall, like we’re within a 3-D snow globe with her. She looks up at a window a couple stories up. We see an old man looking down out of a window. We see Jesse Plemons looking down out of a window. We see Jesse Plemmons in the next shot picking up Jessie Buckley in his worn car. The movie music twinkles and swirls. The two actors kiss. Ah, they’re in love, right. Context is everything. Context gives meaning. And then the two lovers are off, straight into a first act that is one long drive through a countryside inert beneath relentless snow, wipers clacking back and forth, as the conversation veers in arrhythmic timing across notes of science, memory and a poem about how everything is just bones. Every thought and expression borrowed from pre-existing sources. Get your word’s worth with Wordsworth.
Jessie Buckley’s Lucy or Lucia or Amy is thinking of ending things with Jesse’s Jake. Things aren’t going to go anywhere good, seems to be the reasoning. Jake drives the car and sometimes talks; his behaviors seem fairly consistent until they’re not, until some gesture boils up like a foreign object from another self. Louisa or Lucy is forthcoming, a fountain of personality and knowledge and interests. But sometimes she slows to a trickle, or is quiet, and suddenly she is someone else who is the same person but perhaps with different memories, different interests. Sometimes she is a painter, sometimes a physicist, sometimes neither.
Jessie and Jesse are great. Their performances and their characters are hard to describe. Because “people are hard to describe,” as Jessie’s multi-named protagonist(?), muse(?), supporting character(??) says herself late in the film. Identity is a slippery thing; an eel, slick and writhing, difficult to hold and a bit disgusting for the brief time that you do. Then the eel becomes an ouroboros, which art loves to fantasize about, but this film is not about the ouroboros as an abstract symbol, it’s about the moment where the thing succeeds in swallowing itself. Which feels both surreal and very real. At one point Louisa or Lucia and Jake talk about how an animal lives in the present and humans cannot, so they invent hope. This film is about inventions to take hope’s place.
The best movie of 2020 is terrible at being a “movie.” It does not subscribe to common patterns, rhythms, or tropes. It doesn’t even try to be a great movie, really, it simply tries to dissect the life of the mind of the other, and to do that by any cinematic means possible. As an adaptation of Iain Reid’s mesmerizing existential horror mystery, the film is both incredibly faithful and completely different. It is not the grand sweep of dense epics that is the most difficult to adapt in this day and age, it is the films that rely on their prose and narrative viewpoint for their power. (Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn was doomed from the start.) But Kaufman’s film exposes that excuse, because Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is one such book and Kaufman kills it. He does it by gently nudging the book into a form that would enable it to be directed, and then he directs the ever-loving heck out of it. Not by making a “great movie,” but by abandoning the things that make movies familiar and comfortable for us and embracing everything possible—from composition to editing to sound to performance—to make something…else.
In his novel, Reid used the unknown and a genre-based tension as lures. Kaufman’s film is too knowing, too aware of itself to do the same. So instead every moment of it is pregnant with itself, eels within eels, all dying and alive within each other, slipping in and out. Don’t worry, this isn’t an “everything is connected” movie. But, also, it is—just in the only way that makes sense.
The self-awareness of the film could have been unbearable, except awareness (and our fragmentary experience of it) is so entirely the point of everything that the film is wrapped up within and that is wrapped up within it. If Synecdoche, New York was conceptually schematic and Anomalisa was expressive, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is both of those things to the nth degree while fundamentally neither. Essentially, it is awareness, the depth of the melancholy and the humor and absurdity inherent to it. It is entropy, sentience bound to a flawed and failing flesh in a dying world. It’s colors, “the deeds and sufferings of light.”
To say the film accepts both the beauty and ugliness of life would be a platitude that the film itself rejects. To say that “love conquers all,” even moreso. But these false truths flit in and about the film’s peripheral vision: illusions or ghosts, but welcome ones. In discussing a David Foster Wallace essay, Amy and Jake come to a somewhat mutual agreement that the images created by movies or theater or art have their own reality. The film plays with this idea, all the way through, right until its conclusion. It lets extreme cognitive dissonance and unsettling “events” play in their own sort of harmony. It loves the unlovable; it shows the unknowable. Jake’s parents (an unnervingly entertaining David Thewlis and Toni Collette) live in a farmhouse where they decay and renew and die and return. They cycle through. And Jake’s dead dog Jimmy is always shaking off the wet. Impossibilities, which Lucia or Amy or Jessie wonders at, then accepts. Like a rehearsal of Oklahoma that becomes a dream of it that becomes a climax of a movie—a movie that is, at the end of things, like any other movie. Unreal and real.
The book had a pretty bleak period to it. The film keeps that, but finds the period itself to be elliptical. Because the movie is a conception of a book that itself is a conception of who are the others that make up you or me or whoever, and how everything and everyone derives inspiration or life from someone or something else, and everyone in that conception is the same: lonely and loved and dying. Loved by the unreal image that is made out of all those conceptions that are thus—yes, damn it all, bless it all—connected. That is the sacred image, the one that can’t be seen, the word that can’t be spoken. That is where the maggot-ridden cartoon pig is leading us. Out of frame. Movie music twinkles and swirls, in reverse.
Many will turn off I’m Thinking of Ending Things quickly, too abased by the wrigglings of the eel. For those who let it worm inside, they give it a place to live. Those are the ones who will give it life outside of itself, outside of Kaufman, outside of Reid, outside of Jake and Jessie and Jimmy and the old man who loves Wordsworth and Pauline Kael. Those are the ones who will be thinking of I’m Thinking of Ending Things long after it has ended. They may even one day quote it to a friend in a car ride on a treacherous night, dairy desserts sickly dripping in the cupholders. Even if the quote is just a raspberry blow.
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis
Release Date: September 4, 2020 (Netflix)