Sept. 11, 2020 | By Andrew Rodden| Illustration by Jubilee Hernandez
Life doesn’t make sense. The relationships we have with one another, our past mistakes, what the future holds — we don’t understand a lot of the world, regardless of how much we’d like to. Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” takes this notion and goes hog wild. The film is absurd and surreal, but it’s concurrently poignant and relatable despite being tantalizingly undecipherable. Be forewarned: “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a tough watch and might leave even “The Twilight Zone” fans scratching their heads.
Adapted from Ian Reid’s 2016 novel of the same title, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” follows Lucy … Louisa … Lucia? Credited as “Young Woman,” the name of Jessie Buckley’s character changes throughout the movie. Her occupation also fluctuates — sometimes she’s a poet, or a physicist, or a painter. Nonetheless, she joins her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) on a trip to his parents’ (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) rural home in the middle of nowhere.
Toni Collette once again demonstrates her acting chops with one of the best supporting performances of the year, complementing brilliant performances by both Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley in perhaps their most mind-bending roles to date.
While the premise is simple, everything else about the movie is not: the characters’ backstories, motivations, locations, and even their costumes constantly undergo subtle changes from shot to shot. The main character might ultimately be the enigmatic janitor (Guy Boyd) of Jake’s former high school — who knows! You can only count on one thing when you press play: a peculiar movie will run on your screen for 134 minutes.
There’s a lot in this movie that is up to the viewer’s interpretation, akin to abstract poetry, with the meaning sourced from within the individual. Much of what the film expresses is indeed inaccessible, but also familiar. For example, the drama of Jake and the young woman — two people nearing the end of their relationship — is painfully relatable, and Kaufman keys into a unique intimacy between them and Jake’s unsettling parents. At the same time, Kaufman presents the love between the two characters quite beautifully, a stark dichotomy that exists within many of the scenes. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” while bizarre in nature, understands the bread and butter of life better than most films.
The craft here is masterful — this movie was made by someone who understands the medium of film well enough to turn it on its head. Kaufman not only breaks the rules of conventional storytelling, he rejects them completely and substitutes them with his own. The only movies “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” comes close to are in Kaufman’s own filmography, “Synecdoche, New York” (2009) being the most similar in its intricacy and eccentricity. Much like that 2009 masterpiece, each moment of inconsistency in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is deeply intentional and developed with striking nuance.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is not an easy movie to understand, though that is clearly by design. The movie rejects all preconceived notions and expectations, starkly contrasting with mainstream movies who err on the side of cautious realism, constricting viewers to narrow interpretation. It is a poetic representation of the subconscious, offering an absurd reflection of what it means to engage with a piece of art, and broadly, what it means to engage with life. Kaufman uses absurdity to hold a mirror up to the relationship between audience and artwork, a distinction many filmmakers prefer to hide. The audience, whether they like it or not, holds an active role while watching this movie, even if that role is simply figuring out what the hell is going on.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is an important reminder that the medium of film has endless potential for expression. Filmic elements like a linear narrative and continuity are only a few available tools in a massive filmmaking toolbox. A movie can be whatever the filmmaker envisions it to be, conventional or not, though I wish profit-hungry production companies would look past the box office when deciding to green-light movies that are as challenging as “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”
The film is a pigsty at times, but is also one of the most deliberate films released in recent memory, and for that I cannot help but commend Netflix for stepping up to the plate with this one. Like the rest of Kaufman’s filmography, this is an essential watch, and like the rest of his filmography, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” powerfully challenges conventions of narrative filmmaking.