Charlie Kaufman’s latest mindbender tells the story of a young couple on a voyage, a strange trip into the uncertainty of self and other.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman’s fourth film as a director, is a mind-bending metaphysical puzzle focusing on the mysteries of self and other, loneliness and relationship.
Jessie Buckley plays Lucy, an extremely self-conscious intellectual whose inner voice questions the meaning and value of everything in her life, including her new boyfriend Jake (played by Jesse Plemons). Lucy starts the film by saying to herself (and thereby telling us, the audience) “I’m thinking of ending things.” This refers to her relationship with Jake, but it also can’t help but imply the thought of suicide. Well, as it turns out, just about everything in the movie has multiple meanings.
Kaufman is quite deliberate and intentional when it comes to defying what the imagined average viewer wants from a film. The story starts with the couple driving through a snow storm to visit Jake’s parents on a farm in the country. The conversation that they have is so twisted and bizarre that I laughed at the film’s audacity, while experiencing an awkward discomfort that wouldn’t let up. This sequence becomes so intense that I started to imagine that the entire movie would just be these two people talking in a car.
Well. when they finally do get to Jake’s parents’ home, shifts in narrative perspective are already sowing doubts concerning what exactly is real here and what is not. The mother and father, when we finally meet them, are portrayed by Toni Collette and David Thewlis as the weirdest, most eccentric and funny, yet scary, old married couple that you could imagine. Yet even through this more advanced narrative strategy, time shifts menacingly about, along with ages, attitudes and memories. Lucy is also called by different names: Luisa, Lucretia, etc. And I’m only providing the tiniest hints about the profoundly unbalanced sense of reality conveyed by the film. The movie’s entire texture, and especially the dialogue, is surging with ridiculous paradoxes and slippery metaphors.
And then, throughout all this, we occasionally cut to an elderly janitor, going about his job cleaning and maintaining a deserted high school at night. Is the story of Lucy and Jake even real, or is it a fantasy in the mind of this old janitor? At one point, the janitor is watching a movie on TV during a meal break. It’s some kind of quirky comedy in which a young man is making life impossible for the waitress with whom he’s in love. We see the last scene of this movie, which winds things up with an ironic, romantic ending. Then we see the title card, “Directed by Robert Zemeckis.” When I saw this, I burst out laughing.
To try to describe the plot of I’m Thinking of Ending Things any further would be pointless. Not because of spoilers, though. I don’t think an enigma of this magnitude can be spoiled. In any case, the truth behind the story is perceivable if you let go of preconceptions and just follow the clues. But I don’t think that’s even the point. This is all about the ride, not the destination. The fictional dream that Kaufman is presenting here magnifies the self-awareness of the characters into grotesque shapes. The things they say are comical and twisted, but also disturbing, alarming, frightening. This is a film that gleefully plays with your mind. Buckley is hypnotically good. Plemons, whom I’ve never much liked before, plumbs unexpected depths.
A lot of people won’t get it, and therefore, I suppose, they will hate it. But I love I’m Thinking of Ending Things without reservation, even though I think the experience may have scarred me just a little.