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by Karin Lowachee

Ending Things The Kaufman Way


One does not view a Charlie Kaufman movie with the expectation of straightforward storytelling. Though not exactly as impressionistic a tone poem as a Terence Malick film, writer and director Kaufman's palette of films—which includes Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation—demands an acceptance of the surreal, a willingness to immerse oneself in a world without the usual predictable cues of conventional narrative. Perhaps more than any other director, Kaufman manages to deeply examine complex existential themes through the medium of film, so it's small wonder that they take on a fantastical tinge.

In his recent Netflix-produced I'm Thinking of Ending Things (based on the novel by Iain Reid), this surrealist existential examination is pushed to the forefront in a way that borders on horror. Though the film is not overtly fantastical, Kaufman explores the idea that perhaps the deepest fantasies in life are the ones we build in our own minds, and the urgency of understanding them often arrives as we are faced with death. None of the many references to various artforms are random, so an early call out to William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" resounds pointedly through the film.

Kaufman has stated that he does not seek to explain his films or impel certain interpretations onto the audience. However, he does offer some concrete threads through which to divine specific meaning, then proceeds to weave a labyrinthine tapestry of story and visual. Here, the apparent plot seems straightforward enough: a young man named Jake (Jesse Plemons, Friday Night Lights and Fargo) is taking his girlfriend of seven weeks, Lucy (Jessie Buckley, Chernobyl and Fargo) to see his parents who live on a farm in rural Oklahoma. They're a young couple about to hit a relationship milestone—introduction to the family—but we soon discover through Lucy's internal voiceovers that this isn't exactly what she wants. Though she seems to respect Jake, she knows he isn't her endgame and wonders if she should even be on this excursion when she knows she will "end things"—and he seems to know it too, in pointed glances and questions that appear to reflect her silent thoughts and stab suspicion onto her out-loud reassurances.

The first twenty minutes of the movie—which is split in three parts overall, like an ode—take place in Jake's car as they make their way with a certain syncopated desperation through a growing snowstorm. Lucy reiterates multiple times that she can't stay overnight because she has "a paper" to finish, or is it work tomorrow? As the dialogue moves back and forth between Jake and Lucy like a loom shuttle, details begin to fall out and rearrange themselves both visually and narratively for the balance of the film. Is her name Lucy or Louisa or Lucia? Is she wearing an orange coat or a blue one? Is the family dog dead or alive? Are the parents young or old? In the car, the couple's conversation flows between the mundane and the intellectual, landing with somber precision on a poem, "Bonedog," which Lucy recites, about the melancholy of coming home. The fact the last line between them before Jake announces their arrival is "Now we're both dead" possesses some prescient weight.

Even though the film seems to take place inside Lucy's thoughts—we hear them constantly with masterful, engaging delivery from Buckley—the audience soon begins to realize that the point-of-view of the film actually belongs to Jake, and he is, somehow, insinuating the events from his own mind, where memory is not linear, nor is it reliable. All the debate and musing with Lucy is Jake's own debating with himself as his long "drive" roars toward its inevitable conclusion.

Once the possibility of this dual narrative layer is introduced, reinforced by strange scene cuts to an old janitor working in a high school—whose microcosmic world reflects Jake's and Lucy's in seemingly abstract ways (a song, a movie, a snowfall)—the audience can no longer engage with the film in a regular way. The couple arrives at Jake's parents' farm—the second part of the ode—and the dive into surrealism becomes a steady plummet. Mom and Dad, portrayed with dissonant accuracy by Toni Colette (Hereditary) and David Thewlis (Fargo), come off both quirky and vaguely threatening. The tension amongst the four characters over dinner and as they move through Jake's childhood home ratchets up in seemingly innocuous and banal conversation or familial bickering; but it's the very strangeness of it all that edges the interactions toward a kind of horror.

We are seeing things through Lucy's eyes, apparently, but the mounting evidence that this is actually Jake's fantasy only deepens the unease. He clearly has issues with his parents, refuses to look anyone in the eyes for long, and does not want Lucy to go into the basement (symbolic of his own unconscious). Add to that a ramping up of costume inconsistencies and time displacements, and the narrative soon becomes a kind of fugue—both in the musical and psychological sense. The pieces all sound separate but work coherently, splitting off and coming together with purpose; the dissonance and dissociation emerges from the fact we do not know what that purpose is nor why any of it is happening. Or perhaps we, as Jake, refuse to look it in the eyes. Still, we feel it.

This inability to fully grasp the narrative or its meaning plays off a single conversation Lucy has with Jake's dad. In one scene, old age Dad seems to be suffering from dementia, as Lucy notices labels stuck on items all over the house. With incongruous jocularity, Dad exclaims: "Truth is, I'm looking forward to when [my memory] gets very bad and I don't have to remember that I can't remember!" This almost sounds like an anchor to everything that has come before it and everything that will come after. At the very least, it's a road sign to a thematic point.

If this is inside Jake's mind, somehow, and memory is unreliable, then he might not even consciously know what he's actually remembering or what any of it means as he shuffles through the end of his life, an old janitor surrounded by virile adolescence. What is he trying to reconcile within himself? A past relationship or the what-if of a past relationship? Was there even a past relationship or is the image of Lucy simply lifted from a longing glance in his youth?

The clues are smattered throughout the dialogue, from Jake's plaintive sigh that "Sometimes it feels like no one sees the good things you do. Like you're just alone," to his rant about "the lie of it all." The platitudes people offer are an attempt to subvert the reality that so much of life is hopeless and society is alienating. This is old Jake looking with regret and frustration on the static, nowhere trajectory of his own existence, to which Lucy replies that somewhere along the line adults must take responsibility for their own lives. In this way, Kaufman manages to offer both argument and counterargument to the existential question of existence and its meaning.

The movie arrives at some form of answer by taking Jake and Lucy to it via Jake's own high school on their way back home from dinner (the third part of the ode), racing against a "treacherous" blizzard—Jake's own reckoning of his life. Here, Lucy comes face to face with the old janitor, with old Jake. In keeping with the film as a whole, the climax is surreal, unsettling but oddly sublime, even humorous and sad by turns as ballet and a "murder" and a school speech (lifted directly from the movie "A Beautiful Mind") and final musical number all play a part.

Kaufman's signature melancholy lines the entire narrative like sinew, while at the same time binding all of the details together with a certain absurdity, replete with undertones of condemnation, futility, and reluctant acceptance. But what is being condemned? Jake's insistence to hear and see what he wants from Lucy, despite the fact we seem to be given only Lucy's thoughts? The insistence of his own memories and perceptions to reorder both his life and hers (ostensibly his life now and his life in youth), its missed opportunities, its lamenting of reality? Is there even a separation? Is all of this just the faulty recall of a male mind ensnared by dementia, having no forward or backward, no singular throughline of thought, engaged in its own fantasy as it trods inexorably toward death?

Perhaps more than any of his other films, Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things begs more questions at the end than the audience might have had in the beginning. Through subtle but precise imagery, interpolating references to other media (literature, film, and visual art), gymnastic dialogue that presents as mundane conversation, tone accurate performances and a narrative structure unrestricted by convention, I'm Thinking of Ending Things bends the idea of genre and storytelling to its will like it bends the idea of memory and perception into something wholly unreliable but inevitably to be reckoned with. The movie demands multiple viewings, like revisiting a thought one can't quite untangle, but with no guarantee that numerous re-engagements will offer any more clarity, only deeper engagement—much like the quagmires we encounter in our own minds. The audience may find themselves caught in a self-referencing loop, like Jake himself and all of his intellectual obsessions strewn through his childhood home, trying to play detective to mysteries of meaning with no promise of answers. But this might be the point—this is life itself—or at the very least this might be one of many points. Who's to say at the end of things?



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