We watch movies to entertain us, escape from reality or think about the world differently. While these stories are a spectacle and a distraction, they’re essentially commercial products, designed to appeal to a wide audience and generate substantial box office returns. This cold business-orientated view undermines the magic of movies, the power of storytelling and film’s ability to capture a mood or moment in time. However, it’s something that filmmakers need to bear in mind in executing their visions. Formula and hitting the right beats can make some films seem like fast food, which is why is it’s so refreshing to live in the time of an auteur like Charlie Kaufman.
He’s the antithesis of commercial film productions, making movies he wants to make. He’s so committed to this end that even his adaptations aren’t faithful as is the case with I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Rewinding back in time, Kaufman is the screenwriter who brought us Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His labyrinthine writing style makes his films obscure and unconventional, slipping in and out of reality. He continued this into his directorial career with Synecdoche, New York, spilling into the animated feature Anomalisa and now I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Much like David Lynch, knowing his previous films helps you prepare for what’s on the horizon… figuring out which planet’s horizon you’re looking at is the next challenge. Since Kaufman started writing and directing, it’s allowed him to indulge every creative whim. While Synecdoche, New York starring the late Phillip Seymour Hoffmann was a beautiful film, it was mind-blowing to the point of alienation. Anomalisa showcased Kaufman’s storytelling abilities in an animated setting, where he was trying to mimic reality with some unusually intimate and truthful moments. Going back to the arena of live-action, I’m Thinking of Ending Things has a similar layered and abstract effect to Synecdoche, New York.
It’s important to contextualise I’m Thinking of Ending Things within Kaufman’s film career because his previous work will serve as a guide as to whether this film is for you or not. As a filmmaker, Kaufman has created linear narrative films but his speciality is in multi-dimensional platforms. I’m Thinking of Ending Things has the basic structure and flow of a linear narrative, based on the book by Ian Reid… but these elements are really just stepping stones in a river of imagination. It’s centred around a snowy road trip and a meet the parents scenario as Jake’s girlfriend considers their relationship and how to break up with him. The story drops breadcrumbs as clues in an effort to connect scenes and offer some continuity with faint echoes and attempts at deja vu toying with the idea of memory. However, even the most seasoned film detectives will struggle to follow what’s going on.
“You’re right, I do need to consume more Kael.”
I’m Thinking of Ending Things stars Jessie Buckley, whose impressive performance will lead to many more great leading roles. Sharing the screen with Jesse Plemons, the two enjoy great fuzzy chemistry in a tonally dexterous art film. Plemons is best known for his comedy roles but much like Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman’s films are able to unlock dramatic abilities in unexpected ways. Plemons has a similar disposition to Phillip Seymour Hoffmann with both able to carry a fair balance of grit and whimsy. Supporting these fine acts are Toni Collette and David Thewlis with Collette echoing some of the creep from Hereditary and Thewlis reinforcing the same unsettling see-sawing act as Kaufman’s tone. Guy Boyd rounds off a sharp cast with an iconic turn as a janitor.
This mystery drama and thriller keeps you guessing but not in a whodunit sense of the word. The story makes complete sense through the first act and then progressively becomes detached and floats away. The road trip and focus on the co-leads and their dialogue recalls Before Sunrise if it was about a break up rather than an unexpected and spontaneous romance. Ranging from reciting poetry and intellectual discussion to blowing raspberries, at one point it seems as though Kaufman’s film was going to take place exclusively in the vehicle like Locke. Graduating to a prickly meet the parents scenario that functions like a slow-creeping horror with dark shades of comedy, I’m Thinking of Ending Things recalls Eraserhead.
Kaufman and Lynch operate in a similar space, leaning on mood, hints of story and surreal elements to anchor their visions. Lynch feared the prospect of parenthood as expressed in Eraserhead in a similar capacity to the fear of unveiling your outmoded or embarrassing parents to your would-be life partner in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The film could have camped in this Before Sunrise meets Eraserhead state, but then moves into the realm of Stephen King with the prospect of an icy breakdown as in Misery or a deranged caretaker as in The Shining.
Blending these loose story elements, the movie has an unsettling feel where reality seems permeable and reflective. What makes the storytelling so confusing is that Kaufman never spells anything out for his audience. Linking bits ‘n pieces through pop culture artifacts or references makes you think you’ve got a handle, but it’s the characters that slip out of grasp. Some operating in different times, shape-shifting or even being replaced, the one thing that remains constant is that you’re watching a Charlie Kaufman film. This is, after all, an artistic endeavor and Kaufman is happy with audiences formulating their own interpretation or rendition much like his take on adaptations.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a beautifully constructed art film, laced together by strong performances, compelling writing, a deep-rooted mystery and an unpredictable journey of discovery. Much like contemplating an artist’s painting on the wall, your appetite and approach to I’m Thinking of Ending Things will largely dictate your appreciation or tolerance for it. As an anti-commercial property, it’s actively avoiding typical formula and poking fun at it with some weird inside references and jokes to the point of pretension. The alienating, surreal, unpredictable and unsettling feel echoes David Lynch while the experimental, fantastic, quirky and eclectic zing recall Wes Anderson. It’s an otherwise production that doesn’t care if you get the inside joke but one that’s so refreshing for film lovers that you’ll be satisfied in being unsatisfied.
The bottom line: Mind-bending