Dir: Charlie Kaufman. Starring: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd. 15 cert, 134 mins
Life plays out like a stale and unfulfilling romance, according to Charlie Kaufman’s latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. We say yes and yes and yes again, to education, relationships, jobs, marriages, and homes. At some point, in some small moment of stillness, the question arises: “How did I get here?”
The young woman (Jessie Buckley) in I’m Thinking of Ending Things has started to ask herself this. Kaufman, once enough of an idealist to give his lovers in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a second shot, has curdled in the intervening years. This, arguably, is the writer-director’s bleakest film – surpassing even the drooping plasticine expressions and tragic narcissism of his stop-motion puppets in Anomalisa. It’s also one of his best.
“I’m thinking of ending things,” the woman says to herself. She chews over the words, repeating them over and over again in the hope that they’ll suddenly gain the significance she was searching for. She’s not quite sure what she wants to end. Is it her life? Her relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemons)? They’ve only dated for seven weeks, though the time has felt strangely infinite. This marks their first substantial trip together – a visit to his parents, out on their farm. But none of it really seems to matter anymore, now that this thought of ending, well, something has taken hold of her mind. “It’s there whether I like it or not,” she remarks. Buckley’s narration comes out as a casual half-whisper, as if these thoughts had been hastily scribbled in a diary.
Kaufman has taken Ian Reid’s debut novel, published in 2016, and done away with its traditional mystery trappings. Gone is its bait-and-switch ending, replaced with a single mood – one that’s not so much about suicidal ideation or break-ups as the black hole of emotions they have a tendency to create. The young woman arrives at a farmhouse where nothing is right. The lambs are all dead, the pigs long gone after their bellies became infested with maggots. Jimmy, the dog, is wet and perpetually shaking.
Jake’s mother (Toni Colette, as terrifying here as she is in Hereditary) is the perpetual hysteric, cackling so violently that her jaw threatens to retreat inside her own neck. His father (David Thewlis, also on unnerving form) spews nonsense out in tar-coloured croaks – “The food will be cold as a witch’s tit in a brass brassiere,” he declares ahead of dinner. The pair of them are like hyenas – snivelling, snarling, fierce, and pathetic all at once.
Editor Robert Frazen works like a trickster god, cutting between jarringly different angles in such quick succession that even the simplest of conversations soon descends into delirium. Details change without warning: clothes, jobs, and hobbies. Jake’s parents age rapidly between scenes, as if we’re watching corpses decompose before our eyes. We switch occasionally to the viewpoint of an elderly janitor at a high school, entranced by rehearsals for a production of Oklahoma!.
The film is disconnecting from itself. So is the woman who inhabits it. She’s Lucy, Louisa, Lucia – her identity forever in flux. At one point, she becomes temporarily possessed by the spirit of film critic Pauline Kael, reeling off her review of John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, as Buckley’s voice slows and deepens into melodious tones. At another, she’s Eva HD reciting her poem “Bonedog” and its lines: “You return home, moon-landed, foreign”.
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation,” Buckley’s character tells Jake. It’s a quote from Oscar Wilde. Kaufman seems fond of it. What, then, defines us as individuals? Is it love? The young woman eventually forgets her boyfriend’s face. He becomes just one in a thousand “non-interactions in my life”. Kaufman all but admits that there may be no answer to that question. Suddenly, I’m Thinking of Ending Things starts to feel like the most frightening film of the year.
But, if there is hope to be found, it’s in Buckley’s lopsided smile – the trademark of an actor who’s shown herself capable of unearthing fathomless empathy. That smile, simple as it is, is so warm, so open, that it could only belong to a woman who believes, somewhere inside of her, that life is worth fighting for. She is the small flicker of light in the dark.
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