I'm Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kauffman's latest dives even further into the surreal and abstract
Charlie Kauffman has been keeping viewers on their toes since his first screenplays. The American writer-director’s films are always unexpected and incredibly original, from his more famous The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), to his more niche, but equally great Adaptation (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999). Most recently Kauffman had experimented with stop-motion animation with the brilliant Anomalisa (2015). Netflix has captured yet another great cinematic mind and the financial and creative freedom provided are very much felt with Kauffman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020).
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Kauffman’s most surrealist film, to the point that it is worthy of competing with some of Buñuel’s most bizarre pictures. The simplest way of explaining the plot is: a young couple Lucy (Jessie Buckley) and Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving to meet Jake’s parents (Toni Colette, David Thewlis) for the first time.
Kauffman dives completely into the idea of abstract filmmaking and infuses it with a constant thrum of existentialism. To try and discern one singular meaning in the film would be impossible, as there are clashing ideas from Kauffman himself and the eponymous novel it’s based on by Iain Reid. While Reid chose to make things a bit more accessible, but equally mysterious in his source material, Kauffman chooses to dive into the alienation of viewers completely. This helps create the mentality of isolation that the characters feel, and yet for more impatient viewers it can be incredibly frustrating.
Certainly, Kauffman has created one of the most inaccessible films of his career, and yet if one lets oneself be carried by the flow of the abstract narrative, it can be incredibly enjoyable. To try and discern meanings from each image or line would be as futile as trying to understand a Christopher Nolan film while high and drunk. Time is a clear motif in the film which doesn’t play linearly, but almost like a carousel, with characters jumping into different parts of it at their leisure. Viewers with more experience with surrealism will have an easier time discerning what the film’s main themes are about, but even then, it takes quite a while to digest and even decide whether one enjoyed the film or not. This is one of the genius aspects of Kauffman, who is constantly pushing the boundaries of ordinary storytelling.
Kauffman has very invested actors in his cast who go full-out with the flip-flopping personalities of their characters. Everyone in the cast from the fabulous Jessie Buckley, to the small role of janitor by Guy Boyd is played with a contagious dedication. They help sell the more bizarre scenes that clash with viewer’s expectation or even meld genres between comedy and horror. There are long scenes of dialogue as well, specifically in the car between Buckley and Plemons, and both actors chew up the screenplay with a relish and expertise that perfectly portray the state of their relationship (or minds).
Kauffman has fun playing with the visual aesthetic of the film, which proves to be both pleasing and disturbing at the same time. Kauffman has been more accustomed being a sole screenwriter rather than directing – this only being his third directorial outing – and yet he is fast finding a visual style, while also showing an enviable mastery of creating a unit with his performers. Even though each character in I’m Thinking of Ending Things seems to be completely different and at odds with everyone else, the sense of teamwork between the cast is crucially present.
In the end, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a bizarre film whose further analysis could fill up an entire dissertation. Generally, Kauffman plays with the idea of how human minds and imagination work, while sprinkling aspects of existentialism. The film is enjoyable to simply behold how complex its narrative becomes. But in order to enjoy it one must follow the rules that many surrealists set out in the early 1920s: surrealism’s definition is that it has no definition. Sit back and let yourself be swept away.