Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Charlie Kaufman is indisputably one of the crown jewels in the history of American screenwriters. His early works: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remain baffling, meta and surreal investigations of the fractured interior world of troubled, neurotic characters. In 2006 he released his first feature, his masterpiece, Synecdoche, New York, a solipsistic existential artistic nightmare starring the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, ushering in what was sure to be a promising directing career. He took nearly a decade preparing his next film, a stop-motion feature Anomalisa, a low-budget slice of flimsy-whimsy, the characters (who are voiced largely by a single person) speak in long platitudes about love, loneliness and the meaning(lessness) of life. The movie contains elements of his ability to build complex, at turns absurd and mundane lives, for shapeshifting multi-named characters, however, the film is flat and by his standards, incredibly bland, and at times, bordering on parody of his own style. He took four years working on his next film, an adaptation of Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things resulting in a film of the same name. The final product is a pretentious, overwrought, occasionally exhilarating psycho-thriller that, like Anomalisa, induces faint tastes of the themes, methods and substances that have made his work so compelling for two decades but ultimately drowns under the burden of it’s numbing, languorous pacing and laborious characters.
Jake’s girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) is a poet, or maybe she’s an astrophysicist or an astrologist? We don’t know. But she is thinking of ending things. Maybe with Jake (Jesse Plemons), maybe her life, we don’t really know that either. But she’s really good at reading poems, long ones, and she’s got some hot takes on Cassavettes. They are on their way to meet Jake’s parents who live on a remote farmhouse, the wind whips ice and snow past the couple in 4:3 aspect ratio, their uncertainty paralleled with Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” which is photographed in the opening montage. Does all of this mean anything yet? No, and it never really does, which is maybe what the film is trying to say as Kaufman openly wonders whether he’s wasted his whole life, that if he could go back and do it again, maybe he’d just end things.
The film’s self-destructive nihilism is not new for Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is similarly fearful of the eternal recurrence, that if we have only one life and we have to live it over and over again; living with our memories and our past is perhaps life’s greatest stipulation and claim against us wanting to live again. Kaufman contorts and distorts the narrative through dementia, forgetfulness, half-remembrances in the films most effective sequence, a twenty-minute horror-show where Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) exist in a kaleidoscope of blurred time and hazy, accelerating moments. It’s anxious, fretful, disturbed and absolutely confounding. When the sequence finishes it feels as if the film is almost at the completion of its runtime, however, it does not even conclude before the halfway-point of the narrative. The film has a lot to say and spares absolutely no time in saying it only to arrive at the conclusion that it never really meant anything anyway.
So the film wanders through dreary monologues, passing creepy milkshake vendors to get where it wants to go, which is to say it doesn’t cover much ground at all and ends up pretty much exactly where it started. It’s intended to be this cyclical, mind-bending narrative laced with recurring imagery, with a big reveal for those who can figure out which is fairly obvious and any interest it offers is undermined by the pseudo-intellectual psychobabble that populates the couples’ conversations. Some of Kaufman’s preoccupations ring potently in scenes: the psychosis of art and reality, grinding, churning time, aging and the pain it begets us and our relationships, and of course Nietszche, but it never amounts to anything significant because Kaufman seems incapable of allowing it weight; suicide, whether artistic, spiritual or material, should never be a sacrifice or a compromise of meaning.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is by no means a bad film, actually it’s a quite fascinating exercise from a recognized auteur, however, it will only satisfy you so long as you are willing to accept your own interpretation of the film. The movie demands to be talked about and analyzed yet all the hullabaloo is demeaned by the films own aggravating sense of self-importance leaving you to the puzzling and detective work which is frustrating only because it attempts to dilute that pretension with sorrow and misery, ultimately reading like an overly assured grad-student trying to spin mysteries, all the while only revealing how sad they are and how much more depressed the work to uphold that image makes them. So in a characteristically ouroboric turn, Kaufman digests his own shortcomings, failures and regrets through characters who lament similarly, exhausting themselves in the process of trying to maintain what they think they are; always distant from the real kernel of truth, which is that they are the source of all their desolation. I’m Thinking of Ending Things casts it’s gaze over the entirety of a man’s life and arrives at no conclusions except that perhaps the man would have been better off not living it at all.