I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) stands in line with Charlie Kaufman’s previous works – it’s enigmatic, disturbingly dark and often perplexing. On a side note, it is also one of the year’s best films so far.
When it comes to Charlie Kaufman’s take on Iain Reid’s novel of the same title, the saying “good to be back in the saddle” ironically refers to all the existential anxieties that the screenwriter delved into in the past. Here’s another troubled mind, which can’t find peace, and apparently – does think about ending things.
But before we learn the whys and whos, Charlie Kaufman opens with a vivid shot of burgundy wallpaper with floral pattern, and camera slowly examining an empty house. A feminine voice explains how the thought of ending things settles in mind, how it accompanies meals and the second before falling asleep. The way cinematographer Łukasz Żal moulds this beginning visually abounds in unease – it’s a perfect set-up for a thought-provoking thriller.
Just a few minutes later we meet Lucy (though the name’s often warped and twisted) – a young girl with a charming smile who stands on the sidewalk waiting for her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to come round. The couple takes off to meet with Jake’s parents, alas none really seems to be looking forward to the get-together. Meanwhile, Kaufman also introduces an elderly high school janitor whom Lucy notices standing by the window.
First act of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) – lull before the storm
The drive, which lasts around half an hour, serves as an insight into the relationship of Lucy and Jake.
Lucy tends to drift away – thinking about ending things in a plethora of convoluted ways – and Kaufman masterfully weaves her ruminations with an awkward conversation that takes place inside the car. The two aren’t quite on the same wavelength, and their chat bounces from citing Lucy’s poetry to philosophical reveries on mundanity and vanity where influences of Ecclesiastes seem apparent.
Just like the entire film’s theatrical in its direction, that long on-the-road build-up feels like a dichotomous monodrama. Plemons and Buckley capture the intensity that sneaks up on them as they step into the meeting that’s deemed a calamity. Nonetheless, this isn’t a Noah Baumbach Marriage Story (2019)-style sinusoid of anger bursts and bitter reflections. Lucy and Jake shove that kind intensity deep down and cover it up with barricades made of existential questions and answers. Jake’s a milquetoast, Lucy’s a dreamer.
After the slightly monotonic drive that will test the patience of many viewers (and attention to detail as much of those reveal the true meaning of the story), we finally arrive at Jake’s house. And from now on I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) turns into a riveting spectacle – pure joy to watch. Things get weird, and it’s mostly the collaborative effort of the parents – played by David Thewlis and Toni Collette – who put their enormous talents to work.
David Thewlis and Toni Collette shine bright
David Thewlis embraces a simpleton kind who “can’t feel the emotions when looking at a painting unless there’s a person showcasing them”, meanwhile Collette nails the role of a withdrawn mother who visibly suffers from mental illness. These two loonies are sweetly exaggerated, and Kaufman really messes with the audience’s perception of their characters. While the writer-director orders the four characters to have the most uncomfortable dinner in the history of cinema, their hairdos, costumes and physical traits constantly change – like in a dream or a blurry memory. Captured in beautifully climatic frames by Łukasz Żal, this sequence is the film’s absolute pinnacle – a rare scene in the whole I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) that can be enjoyed on its own without context, and also key element of understanding the roots of our protagonist’s powerlessness.
Nothing short of brilliant is the way this film is written, but Kaufman already spoiled us with impeccably delivered psychological sketches in the past. Not many writers possess skills that allow them to vivisect human problems with such delicacy and intelligence. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), the dialogues flow beautifully, they’re rhythmic but also arhythmic – just like a particular scene requires them to be. Even when Kaufman shows off, and reaches for an overwhelming complexity, the plot always circles back to its backbone.
The difficult dialogues wouldn’t land well if not for the actors who give their hearts and souls. Charlie Kaufman, Aaron Sorkin, and only a few other screenwriters have the ability to extract so much context from single lines or scenes, and there’s not a single character that feels off. Jake’s parents are the show-stealers in all of their appearances, however Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley put equally convincing performances.
Charlie Kaufman’s directing is on par with his directing skills
Kaufman writes with incredible wit, and confidently handles directing. Slow-burn character of the film allows the filmmaker to examine the collection of moments, thoughts and emotions. They all are projections of one’s frustrations as found throughout years. At the same time, Kaufman conjure up a nightmarish atmosphere without a single horror gimmick. We step into someone’s mind like taking a seat in a theater – it gets palpable in the most uncomfortable way.
Fans of Kaufman will surely notice how this collaboration with Netflix fits in the writer-director’s dossier. Charlie Kaufman was always intrigued by the human psyche, its fragility and the citadels built to protect the insides of our minds. In Synecdoche, New York (2008) Kaufman rubbed on the wounds most of us keep hidden, and the same happened in Anomalisa (2015) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Each of his films is a bracing experience – a journey filled with mancaments, embarrassments and nakedness that’s all deeply weaved into being a human.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) finds itself a cozy spot among these titles. Kaufman offers a bizarre trip, saddening but also funny, heavy and light in equal measures. I’m thinking that it’s not a film for everyone, but hey – isn’t true art often divisive?
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Hate Grade: 2.5/10
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Writer: Charlie Kaufman, based on the novel by Iain Reid
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis
Cinematography: Łukasz Żal
Music: Jay Wadley