FILM REVIEW: I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

Beware – spoilers ahead!

There’s a moment during I’m Thinking of Ending Things in which a character, describing her artistic style, says: ‘I try to imbue my work with a sense of…interiority’. This line is one of many keys to understanding the film and could serve as a description of Charlie Kaufman himself, who is usually more concerned with what’s going on inside a character’s head than the external plot of their life. Unlike a lot of the stories he has told, however, this film presents less of a clear divide between interiority and exteriority; we have to pay attention to the details to decipher what is actually going on in this elusive world.

This is one of those movies whose audience is divided into two categories: ‘people who got it’ and ‘people who didn’t get it’, and I’m not ashamed to admit I was squarely in the latter group until I pieced together the meaning of the film’s closing scenes by reading other reviews and theories. From what I can gather, the novel upon which the story is based (written by Iain Reid) explains things in more detail, but the following synopsis is based solely on the events of the film.

A woman (Jessie Buckley, credited simply as ‘Young Woman’) travels with her boyfriend Jake (the always enjoyably terrifying Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, both excellent) at their remote farmhouse. Our protagonist is then faced with a series of strange occurrences; an awkward dinner, a creepy basement, characters suddenly ageing twenty years, and a dog stuck on auto-shake. This part of the story is interspersed with scenes from another life, as an elderly janitor goes about his duties in a deserted high school. What does it all mean?

It’s going to be impossible for me to review the film without answering this question, so here goes, cover your eyes if you are spoiler-averse: ‘Young Woman’ is not really the protagonist. The story – from Buckley’s opening monologue to Plemons’ Oklahoma! rendition – is taking place inside the janitor’s head as he contemplates suicide and daydreams about ‘other paths’ he could’ve taken in his life and women he could’ve wooed. Buckley’s character is apparently a figment of his imagination (or memory…?).

OK. This is the first bone I have to pick with the way the story is told. It’s not really clear to me why an elderly man’s daydream would take place inside the mind of a physicist-poet-woman who may or may not have ever existed. It seems to me this narrative choice has only been made to wrong-foot the audience, not because it is plausibly driven by the character’s psyche. We never really get to know the janitor ‘IRL’ so we can only make guesses as to why he is dreaming of a dense interior monologue and long car journey from the perspective of Jessie Buckley. Is he just fed up with his own POV? What kind of person daydreams about going on boring car journeys?

This leads me to the second bone I have to pick. A much tighter movie could’ve been crafted had the car scenes been shaved down; there is just too much broody navel-gazing and ‘general malaise’ in these drawn-out sections to keep the audience fully engaged. It doesn’t help that Kaufman deprives us of anything interesting to look at or listen to during the car journeys; the visual aesthetic of this film is rather flat and washed-out, as though each frame has been semi-drained of colour, and the sound and score are practically non-existent. ‘Young Woman’ stares contemplatively out of the window at a CGI blizzard, and we stare at her staring. I can’t help but feel that Kaufman’s directorial choices come from the desire to have us focus primarily on his screenplay.

Kaufman has always explored existentialist themes by having his characters wax poetic about said themes in a way that is stylistically interesting (if unrealistic). In his screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind he inserts frequent inner-monologuing and navel-gazey dialogue, but we have Michel Gonry’s striking visuals to distract us, along with Jon Brion’s uplifting score. In Being John Malkovich the brooding existentialism is served with side-helpings of Spike Jonze’s anarchic humour and energetic pacing, which compliments Kaufman’s masterful script. But I’m Thinking of Ending Things is missing these vital components, so like the snowed-over car in the credits, we are too often left with a cold, empty feeling.

Some positives: I liked the way the movie explored its themes of ageing and memory, and found there to be some truly poignant moments between ‘young woman’ and the various versions of characters she interacts with. I thought the dance sequence toward the end of the film was beautifully choreographed and staged, a welcome respite from the gloominess of the preceding scenes. And it almost goes without saying that the casting and acting is spot on, the dinner scene being one of the high points of the movie thanks to the potency of talent seated around the table.

Overall, the film suffers many of the same shortcomings as Kaufman’s earlier Synecdoche, New York; it has some solid ideas and is grounded in emotional truth, but veers too much into broody self-indulgence and could’ve benefited from around thirty minutes being cut from the runtime. It’s the kind of film that would probably get better with further re-watches, but unfortunately there aren’t enough positives that would make me endure those car scenes again.

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