For a filmmaker whose first script, Being John Malkovich, plunged us, literally, into the head of a revered character actor and whose most recent, Anomalisa, was a stop-motion meditation on individuality, a couple’s car journey to visit the boyfriend’s parents might seem a bit… prosaic? However, filtered through the singular, neurotic vision of Charlie Kaufman, i’m thinking of ending things is as thematically rich as any of his more high-concept projects.
Based on the book by Iain Reid, i’m thinking of ending things follows Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) – for so she is known – and her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), on a day trip to meet his parents at the family farm. Young Woman is insistent that she has to be back in the city for that evening, but the reason – physics paper, film review, waitressing shift – changes from scene to scene, as does her name – Lucy, Lucia, Louise – and her passions – poet, painter, physicist.
No one seems consciously aware of the inconsistency, though Young Woman is certainly suspects that something is up. The only thing that doesn’t change: She’s thinking of ending things with Jake. Which is odd in itself, given that, in voiceover, she ruminates on how much she likes him, how funny he is, how smart, how cute. And yet there’s a sense of inevitability; that their relationship, indeed maybe all relationships, is doomed. “Maybe this is how it was always going to end.”
i’m thinking of ending things may be the most purely experiential of Kaufman’s films to date. One early sequence consists of a series of dissolves through the rooms and objects of Jake’s parents’ home – flowery wallpaper and midcentury furniture —accompanied by Jay Wadley’s lilting, melancholic score.
Kaufman’s direction, meanwhile, keeps the Young Woman and Jake isolated, dividing them even within the confines of the car. Flurries of snow isolate them further. The camera gazes up plaintively at passing clouds, tree branches, phone lines. Łukasz Żal’s vivid, chilly cinematography reinforces the sense of purgatory. And this is just the first twenty minutes.
The film has a dread in normality. Jake says that he likes road trips because “It’s good to remind yourself the world is larger than the inside of your own head”, but in Kaufman-world you carry your hell with you. Like a thought, you can’t get rid of it. All of this is captured in the Young Woman’s poem, Bone Dog, which she recites to Jake at his request: “Coming home is terrible whether the dogs lick your face or not, whether you have a wife, or just a wife-shaped loneliness waiting for you.”
Coming home is certainly not an easy experience for Jake, about whom we know next to nothing, apart from his reading habits; his erudition – from William Wordsworth to David Foster Wallace – being something he eagerly shares with his girlfriend.
His parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) are kooky to the point of creepiness. Colette is touchy and twitchy, turning from manically cheery to verge of tears between shots. David Thewlis, who “starred” in Kaufman’s Anomalisa back in 2015, plays his sad-eyed, sheepish Lancastrian semi-self, a slight sense of sneering superiority always beneath the surface. He also doesn’t get abstract art, which for this film will be a challenge. Everyone stammers, their identities unmoored, coloured by emotion and past experience.
As in all of Kaufman’s work, there’s a lot going on here; not least a mysterious janitor (Guy Boyd), who wanders the corridors of some unknown high school, disdained and unappreciated, who may be key to it all. Time jumps and smelly dogs are all part of a deceptively tight-knit reflection on ego and insecurity, on dealing with failure and the things that do not come to pass. Jake once received a pin for diligence at school and it has come to define his life, his relationship with his parents and their hopes for him, for himself. A hope that things will get better, as the film puts it, born of the inevitability that things will not.
This domesticity here operates on a similar allegorical level to Darren Aronofsky’s mother!; every exchange representative of something or underlain with some hidden meaning. The subtext here is solipsistic, though, rather than biblical.
One scene finds the Young Woman doing trapped in a Penrose staircase, doing endless loops before the locked-off camera, as she reflects on her relationship with Jake, her purpose in life. In its final act, as the couple hits the round, i’m thinking of ending things veers into more freewheeling territory; even as it locks in its themes of inescapability, that the patterns that define our lives have already been set.
Our ideas are not our own – they belong to Oscar Wilde or Pauline Kael, whether it’s a knowing quotation, a fictional Robert Zemeckis rom-com, or a full recitation of a negative review of Gena Rowlands’ performance John Cassavetes’ Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown. That “This two-hour-and-thirty-five-minute film leaves you too groggy to do more than moan,” the Young Woman quotes, drawling, cigarette in mouth, might be considered a neat bit of self-criticism on Kaufman’s part.
i’m thinking of ending things lacks the scope and grandeur of Synecdoche, New York – no epic warehouse, just a midcentury farmhouse – or the self-aware, meta-textuality of Adaptation, but does, broadly, knottily, lend itself to a single interpretation. One with no less than two musical numbers. In this, the film richness and deepens the sources from which it draws. Suffice to say, you’ll never see Oklahoma! in quite the same way.
Few filmmakers grapple with insecurity, with the fear of failure, and even fewer have, to my knowledge, managed to make pancake makeup profound.
i’m thinking of ending things is available on Netflix.