Director: Charlie Kaufman
Writers: Charlie Kaufman (written for the screen by), Iain Reid (based on the book by)
Starring: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette
Runtime: 134 mins
MPAA Rating: R
After watching Synecdoche, New York, I go into Charlie Kaufman’s movies ready to actively maintain a mental catalog of every detail of every previous frame to understand everything that is being communicated on-screen at any given moment. Though I am being a bit hyperbolic, the complexity is the appeal of Kaufman’s films. Ascertaining the meaning forces you to be an active rather than passive viewer. Knowing this ahead of time, I’m Thinking of Ending Things was not a jarring experience as it might be to someone unfamiliar with his extraordinarily meta films. On the contrary, I went into the film ready to mentally engage and was not disappointed.
Inspired by an Iain Reid novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things greets us with voiceover from a young woman (Jessie Buckley) confiding to you that she is “thinking of ending things.” Immediately, you are startled and concerned as you are hoping she is not planning to end her own life. Fortunately, you then find out she is only referring to ending her short-term relationship with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) though this is currently complicated by the fact that she has agreed to ride with him out into the country with snow in the air to have dinner with his parents on their farm. With the premise quickly established and the audience’s attention effectively captured, the back-and-forth dialogue between the woman and Jake proceeds and you follow along until at a certain point you must admit: nothing about this relationship feels quite right. They each carry on a little bit too long discussing any given topic and the references they make are ultra-specific. As you process more and more of their exchanges, it becomes abundantly clear that things are not what they seem. From this point onward, you are attuned to that fact and ready to pick up on deviations from normal, and I won’t spoil any of the subsequent details.
The prevailing atmosphere throughout the film is one of melancholy as reflected by the subdued performances from the excellent leads, the minimal amount of characters, the isolated winter setting transitioning from day into night, the dark color palette, and the frequency of lonesome imagery. Understanding exactly who Jake and this woman are is difficult but having concern for where they are going is not. The entirety of the film is captivating as you are highly uncertain of what the next event will be though you do feel impending dread at all times much like a horror film. The film’s atmosphere subtly guides you towards understanding the intriguing peculiarities that Kaufman frequently injects onto the screen. As the plot progresses, the more surreal everything becomes, and having intuition about the meaning of what is happening is crucial to staying engaged with the experience.
While consternated by the strange occurrences happening on screen, you might not take the time to appreciate the skill in the cinematography. The initial car ride conversation takes up the first twenty minutes of the runtime but avoids visual stagnation by incorporating a variety of camera placements and movements external to the vehicle. Kaufman precisely composes every shot and draws your attention to a piece of the puzzle without ever giving too much away about where exactly to place that piece. Every aspect of the production design is purposeful and conveys meaning from the type of flooring in the house to the books on the shelf to the colors of the characters’ clothing. Similarly, the editing choices are creatively motivated to inform you of connections between different aspects of the film as it transitions from shot to shot. The technical construction of the film is remarkable in that it sustains a consistent tone, services the complex communication of ideas, and keeps the visual presentation mesmerizing.
Conceptually well-defined and extensively self-referential, I’m Thinking of Ending Things makes taking the time to think through everything that has passed in front of you a rewarding task. Though the meaning of the film is far from explicit, the feelings imparted to you by the presentation guide you towards the concrete idea guiding the proceedings. The visual richness, the enigmatic script, and the subtle performances from both Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons as well as vibrant supporting performances from Toni Collette and David Thewlis arrest your attention as you attempt to understand the successive events often playing out as dream-like non sequiturs. Upon completion, I felt both immensely satisfied and anxious to rewatch in order to pick up on all that had escaped me on my first watch. Upon a second watch, I gained a greater understanding and appreciation of the film’s constitution though it introduced me to my one major criticism: this film is extremely self-indulgent. On a second viewing, it became very mildly off-putting as Kaufman spares no expense at displaying his own cleverness and self-awareness. The film might have been able to work even better had some aspects been left more open-ended. That being said, when the self in which you are indulging is rigorously well-crafted, this quality becomes a trivial fault, and some might argue an enhancement. If you are mentally prepared to put effort into being an active viewer, I’m Thinking of Ending Things will be a thoroughly satisfying experience for you.
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