Review: 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' is a Captivating, Metaphysical Tale
by Alex Billington
September 4, 2020
When I was in school growing up we studied a painting that particularly captured my heart and my mind. Its title, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, is a perfect description of the events portrayed in the painting. The French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin created this masterpiece in Tahiti, painting characters that are meditating on the questions about human existence listed in the title. We ought to study the painting from right to left, starting with a sleeping child's figure and ending with an old woman near her death. These same existential questions immediately came to mind while watching I'm Thinking of Ending Things, the latest feature film both written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (director of Synecdoche New York, Anomalisa). Based on the debut novel by Iain Reed, this metaphysical thriller-drama touches on captivating ideas such as dreading existence and merciless aging of human being.
Lucy, Lucia, or Louisa (Jessie Buckley) – the name constantly changes and never stays the same, is in a relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemons). Nearing their six-months anniversary, Jake takes his girlfriend to his childhood farmhouse to visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Everything shifts during the moment of the opening sequence when Buckley's character starts to think about ending things. The thought itself repeats and returns throughout the narrative and is remarkably powerful and loud in the girl's mind. Lucy (let's call her Lucy) almost feels like she says it out loud. Jake's vexing questions don't improve the situation, and the character is further pushed to dwell on the meaning of their relationship and life. While the characters discuss physics, Pauline Kael, and other things, time starts to slip away and gets even more twisted and confusing when they get to the farmhouse, and Lucy meets Jake's parents.
Within the mountain of scenes that don't appear to make much sense as they initially play out in the film, Kaufman also showcases a school janitor's (Guy Boyd) daily routine. At first, this seems to be an entirely unrelated plotline, but, in the end, the stories connect and create a melancholic whole that fills the audience with a post-reflection on their own reality.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a hard film to figure out. But, just like life, a movie about existence and death cannot be easy to figure out. Kaufman makes sure that. While watching and comprehending all the sequences transpiring on screen, we stop and think about uncertainties, and specifically, about death that can come as a surprise, in the most unexpected moment. The film incorporates seemingly unrelated scenes that could just as well be separate and work as individual stories. Buckley and Plemons truly reach their highest potential and charm viewers from the very beginning. The road trip scene is a quintessence of their relationship. Although their characters don't know each other that long, their bond and mental connection is extremely powerful. We all know the many components of road trips: one-syllable answers, peeking out the window at barns and cows, or stopping for snacks. But this feels different: They’re in each other's minds. While the female contemplates ending things, either she means the relationship or something more gloomy – suicide – Jake asks her questions over and over again. His constant inquiries disrupt Lucy's thinking, her inner monologue that is so relatable to the audience. Especially during the pandemic now, when we can't go to all the places we're used to, and we're almost forced to reflect on our place in this world. Conclusively, their road trip is an odd, highly confusing but satisfying and mind-bending portrayal of a dreading presence.
Toni Collette and David Thewlis as a Mother and a Father (they don't have names, it's not really important) magnificently complete the whole picture. Their characters create a truly odd couple. At first, the audience barely notices. We observe their dinner and see Mother uncontrollably giggling or Father exclaiming words in the most unexpected moments. But Lucy takes it in as something completely normal. Then we notice it. Things start to change – like Lucy's haircut and the color of her coat. The audience also experiences the changes in the Mother and Father. As portrayed by Collette and Thewlis, the subject of aging and passing is scary and, in moments, heartbreaking. What the film does is encourage viewers to take a step back and pause. Thinking about impending death isn't easy, but it's one thing that is truly certain.
Charlie Kaufman is a master of making and writing high-art films. He's telling the stories in his own way. The goal of his cinematic storytelling is to compel the audience to reflect, think, and consider. It's a challenge to critique it as everyone's own personal views, beliefs, and experiences will shape their opinion. For some, it may be boring to sit through all two hours and fourteen minutes. For others, the film will be a visually-pleasing, touching picture with captivating storytelling. The drama is full of interludes in the shape of a movie-within-a-movie or a cartoon that suddenly pops up on a car window. Everybody will interpret I'm Thinking of Ending Things differently, just like how we interpret a painting differently. That's Kaufman's goal. The beauty of filmmaking is reading between the lines and deducing the truths hidden within. That is, without a doubt, exactly what this film does.
The film's spectacular direction is enriched by the outstanding cinematography of Łukasz Żal (who also shot Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War and Ida). It’s his first production with Kaufman and his first film shot in the United States. The Oscar-nominated Polish cinematographer desired to emphasize the meanders of aging and how our memory and perception changes as the time passes. Żal creates a visual style for memory by utilizing full colors, abundant pieces of clothing, patterns, and even the walls' textures. The idea is almost exaggerated, its surface resembles a painting. One flagrant example, in particular, is the scene immortalized on the poster. The audience gets a glimpse of bright colors, patterned wallpaper, and the main character sitting at the table. Her hand holds a glass of wine while her face takes on a stoic, contemplative expression.
One of the most beautiful, touching scenes in I'm Thinking of Ending Things is the dance performance in the hallways of Jake's rural high school. Żal and Kaufman collaborated with Unity Phelan (a New York City ballet soloist) and an actor-dancer Ryan Steele (Carousel) to create it. The seven-minute sequence is absolutely breathtaking and may be read as the illustration of the main characters' shared life. It's quite out of context, and yet upon closer examination, it fits beautifully with the topics that Kaufman touches upon.
Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a lot of things: a heartbreaking story of aging, a metaphysical thriller, an emotional portrayal of a dread-filled existence, and a time-bending experience. It's complex and seemingly hard to understand. Kaufman wants you to interpret the characters' actions and take whatever you need from the film at that very moment of your life. The performances by Buckley, Plemons, Colette, and Thewlis are profoundly refined, challenging, and powerful. The film is distinctly noteworthy as it deals with issues faced by every human being. The thought-provoking picture is one of the best movies of this year and is perfect to kick off the fall movie season.
Zofia's Rating: 5 out of 5
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