I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Written & Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Ending things can have many different meanings. At first, we assume our main character’s internal monologue is referring to breaking up with her boyfriend. For most of the movie, that appears to be the intent of the phrase. However, as the walls of reality melt away, and our perspective begins to shift, we start to think about how much more fatal “”ending things”” can be. Does anything end or, when we think life has ended, do we fall into a jumbled void of memories and imagined experiences, drowning in our own confusion? Charlie Kaufman never gives us something easy to decipher, and he desires to challenge our mindset.
Studying quantum physics at university, a woman (Jessie Buckley) embarks on a day trip to her boyfriend, Jake’s (Jesse Plemmons) childhood home to meet his parents. They have been dating for a little less than two months, and the woman admits in voiceover that she is thinking about ending the relationship. Almost immediately, the trip takes a strange turn with minor breakdowns of reality, escalating when they arrive at the old farmhouse where Jake’s parents fluctuate in age, the woman’s name and field of study change with every iteration of conversation, and a sense of dread creeps over everything. Throughout the movie, we cut briefly to the mundane day-to-day errands of a high school custodian, interested in the students in the workplace as people, but looked at with disdain by many of the kids.
Most of Ending Things is a conversation between the woman and Jake. They discuss a wide variety of topics with her recitation of a poem, the Broadway musical Oklahoma, John Cassavettes’s Woman Under the Influence, and soft-serve ice cream franchises. These conversations seem meaningless and disconnected, but closer examination as the film’s themes come to the surface reveals that these bits of dialogue orbit some more profound existential concepts.
Charlie Kaufman has taken great artistic license with Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, adding more references to movies and changing up the original ending, which resembled trashy, slasher fiction into a balletic metaphysical tragedy. Those third acts are wildly different but lead to the same ultimate conclusion. I’m not sure which I prefer more because both have their merits and work in their respective mediums. I think the novel has a greater chance of really tearing up the reader’s heart with the way it’s tragic conclusion hits. Kaufman gives us something visually interesting and intellectually appealing, but I don’t feel my emotions as strongly with the film version.
The acting is some of the best I’ve seen in 2020. Jessie Buckley, whom I previously reviewed in Beast, can take a nameless character who has to shift personalities and deliver dialogue that isn’t the most naturalistic and turn her into a profoundly relatable, nuanced person. Jessie Plemmons continues his trend of playing enormously complicated, neurotic people, able to showcase how quiet and without tears, depression can be in real life. Toni Collette and David Thewlis have the roles of Jake’s parents, and their part in this story is to further the surreal horror Kaufman is establishing. As a result, they get to be much more over the top and ludicrous. Colette and Thewlis remind us what great supporting character actors they are alongside their skill as leading players.
I don’t know if you will like I’m Thinking of Ending Things; I have a feeling a vast number of people will actively hate this film. It’s horror but jumpscares, more existential and metaphysical. This is the sort of horror that is most affecting to me personally. It transcends monsters and puts you squarely in confrontation with the bleak nature of human existence. Kaufman has always played with identity his work, and once again, he gives us a character whose relations the identity of another is in flux. Death is also looming over this story as the director asks what will remain of the self in the moment of death? Will we be cognizant as we pass, or will the end be a cacophony of images without true meaning?