I am thinking of many things as reflecting on Charlie Kaufman’s new film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, which was released on Netflix two days ago. Because I happened to be dizzy and sleepy when I watched it for the first time this morning, I was not so sure about whether I really understood what it is about or how it is about, so I re-examined it again several hours later, and I came to appreciate more of many baffling but sublime moments in the film. While they often do not make sense together at first, they somehow are developed together into a singular presentation of melancholic and desperate human conditions, and the overall result feels all the more poignant to me as I reflect more on what I observed from the movie.
Like many of Kaufman’s notable works such as “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), the movie, which is based on the novel of the same by Iain Reid, begins with a deeply melancholic state of mind, and that state of mind belongs to a young woman played by Jessie Buckley. During the opening scene, she says to herself that she is thinking of ending things, but she does not specify what she exactly wants to end, and the only thing we can be sure about at this point is that she has not been so happy about the current status of her life.
Anyway, she tries to look fine when she is about to join her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) for visiting together Jake’s parents, who have lived in a remote farmhouse located somewhere in a rural region of Oklahoma. Because she has some work to be done till the next day, she wants to return as soon as possible, and Jake assures to her that there will not be any problem with that, though it is apparent that a big snowstorm is coming.
The following extended sequence solely focuses on what is exchanged between these two main characters as Jake drives his car to his parents’ farmhouse. As watching the bleak wintry landscapes which they are passing by, she cannot help but talk about a number of things with Jake, and Jake is willing to interact amiably with her, but it gradually becomes clearer to us that how disconnected they actually are. We naturally come to wonder: does the title of the movie reflect her desire to end her relationship with Jake?
Anyway, our two main characters eventually arrive in the farmhouse of Jake’s parents, which somehow feels quite barren even though Jake’s parents seem to prepare to greet Jake and his girlfriend. As spending a little time outside with his girlfriend, Jake shows her a couple of rather unpleasant things inside the farm, and she cannot help but reflect on the inevitability of death – and the fact that human beings are possibly the only biological entities on the Earth constantly aware of the existential dread of death.
When they later enter the house, Jake and his girlfriend are perplexed by the silent emptiness of its interior space, which feels more like a museum of personal memories rather than a lived-in residence. Although Jesse’s parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, eventually appear, they look rather strained with their exaggerated attitudes, and, ironically, Jake becomes more uncomfortable than his girlfriend as they spend more time with his parents.
Of course, as it gets darker with more snow from the sky outside, his girlfriend wants to leave more than before, but weird moments start to pop up here and there around her. For example, Jake and his parents suddenly disappear from her sight more than once, and then it is followed by an odd sequence where she seems to behold a jumbled mix of different temporal states of Jake’s parents.
In addition, we also become more uncertain about who she really is. Her name and occupation keep being changed whenever they happen to be mentioned by Jake, and she comes to look more like an amalgam of a number of different persons in the life of somebody else – especially after a brief but crucial moment involved with what she accidentally discovers in the basement of the house.
Anyway, she and Jake eventually leave, and we get another extended sequence unfolded between them in the car, which feels more intense than the previous one. Their conversation jumps from one thing to another until Jake decides to stop by a certain unexpected spot, and you may be amused by a rather heated discussion on John Cassavetes’ great film “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974).
I will not go details on what is presented during the rest of the film, but I can tell you instead that I came to admire more Kaufman’s bold attempt to baffle and intrigue us. During one unforgettable poetic moment, the soundtrack is dramatically brightened up as cinematographer Łukasz Żal’s camera, which has intensely focused on the characters within the deliberately limited screen ratio of 1.33:1, becomes a bit more fluid than before for vividly capturing the dramatic impact during this moment, and what follows next is a sad and poignant final touch to what has been steadily mixed and built up for that under Kaufman’s dexterous direction.
Kaufman also draws richly nuanced performances from his main performers, who bring lots of human qualities to their respective roles. As Jesse Plemons, who has been one of the most promising new talents in Hollywood since his substantial supporting turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” (2012), ably holds the ground as demanded, Jessie Buckley, who was absolutely terrific in “Wild Rose” (2018), shows more of her versatility while deftly containing multitudes as required by her role, and Toni Collette and David Thewlis have a lot of fun as effortlessly swinging around the different modes of their characters.
Since he drew our attention for the first time with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Being John Malkovich” (1999), Kaufman has kept impressing and entertaining us with his playful but ultimately intense and serious exploration on human life and mind, and “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is another superlative outcome from his ongoing artistic progress. While “Synecdoche, New York” remains to be his magnum opus in my humble opinion, this film is surely as haunting and thought-provoking as we can expect from Kaufman, and I am already eager to see whatever will come next from his undeniably creative artistic mind.
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