Synopsis: A young woman (Jessie Buckley) takes a long, strange trip to an isolated farmhouse to visit her new boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) parents … or does she?
1. Let’s get right to the meat of the issue. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is an overlong ode to solipsism that seems to pride itself on being wilfully obtuse. It is a film that, to use the technical parlance, disappears its own ass so much that it can see the little dangly thing that swings in the back of its throat. (1) It is a film that absolutely reeks of insecurity, with the stench of its creator who, even after assuring you that he knows all about William Wordsworth and Pauline Kael and the gender politics of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, is still terrified to his core that he might be (gasp) merely another mediocre white man. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a monument to self-obsession and self-pity, a film that literally and metaphorically goes nowhere but down, down, down into the empty void that exists at the core of the self.
It’s also a work of absolute fucking genius.
2. The way I feel about I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (hence abbreviated to ITOET because I’m Singaporean and I like abbreviations) is very much the same way I feel about Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synechdoche, New York, in that I’m still torn about whether I like it, but I’m sure that I love it. The thing is that Kaufman’s greatest gift is also his most infuriating trait, which is his tendency to externalise interiority – which is acknowledged in a line in ITOET about the painting of landscapes (also reflecting his second greatest gift/second most infuriating trait – his ridiculously recursive sense of irony and metafictional self-consciousness). Everything is inside – even (or rather, especially) the outside. However, while Synecdoche brazenly gave no shits about the delineation between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’, ITOET (along with Kaufman’s last film Anomalisa) makes very clear by the end what is ‘real’ and what is simply ‘in the mind’. This does render it far more intelligible than Synecdoche, but possibly at the cost of making it a less interesting movie. Still, a ‘less interesting’ Kaufman work is a thousand times deeper than your average multiplex shlock, and there is still plenty to mull over. Said mulling is next to impossible to do without discussing the film in some specifics, so …
[SPOILERS FROM HERE. JUMP TO PARAGRAPH X IF YOU WANT TO REMAIN UNSPOILED]
3. I cottoned onto the twist approximately fifteen minutes into the movie. This is not a brag about how smart I am (2) but is instead a point in the movie’s favour. This is not one of those movies that relies purely on a single shocking twist, but treats its supposed big reveal with the briefest of shrugs. There is no big musical sting or gasps of shock that accompany the revelation that …
[OK SERIOUSLY ABANDON SHIP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE COMPLETELY SPOILED FOR THIS MOVIE]
… the Young Woman is, and has always been a figment of Jake’s imagination, and that Jake himself is an idealised version of the janitor’s younger self. In many ways, Kaufman seems to expect that his audience has arrived at this conclusion much earlier, because the emotional resonance of the reveal belongs solely to the characters and not the viewer. If anything, this is an ‘un-twist’, less a surprising swerve and more a confirmation of a nagging suspicion – which actually ended up making the movie better once I figured it out. Unlike other ‘twist-centric’ movies, this one does not rely on shock value, but rather on the added thematic and emotional depth its twist provides.
4. Since Being John Malkovich, Kaufman has been interested (some might say obsessed) with the fundamental questions of consciousness, and ITOET falls right into the same category. This is a film that ruthlessly interrogates the consciousness of its main characters in a way that few others dare. Memories, fantasies, cultural forces, fears and desires all coalesce together in the broken prism of Jake’s mind in all sorts of unexpected ways, even including some very funny ones, such as the pitch-perfect movie parodies of your typical romantic comedy and even middlebrow Oscar-bait pablum like A Beautiful Mind. Yet all these elements cohere quite beautifully thanks to Kaufman’s total understanding of Jake’s psychology. Every seemingly weird inconsistency follows perfect emotional logic. Jake’s memory of his parents succumbing to dementia changes the Young Woman’s major from quantum physics to gerontology. All the supposed things the Young Woman did that she cannot remember stem from previous times Jake has replayed this particular fantasy, as shown through the image of the dumpster filled with soft-serve. It all builds up to a complex portrait of a man that is both sympathetic and unsympathetic – a socially awkward loner, frustrated at a world that ignores and ostracises him, who believes that he has been denied the recognition due to his talents, eventually retreating behind the guise of a fantasy alter-ego and inventing a relationship with an idealised woman who seems to unconditionally love him for who he is.
5. I’m being somewhat facetious with the Joker comparison, but it very much is a helpful one to understand precisely why and how ITOET works in contrast to it. Firstly, Kaufman’s film feels far more universal, largely thanks to the fact that it concerns itself with a more general sense of isolation instead of just purely focusing on the straight white male (though admittedly, there is plenty of that). In particular, this movie has a real sense of empathy for the elderly, with a ringing message that we should do more to integrate them into society, and also provide better support for those who willingly take on the burden of care. Furthermore, ITOET grants a great deal of agency to its female protagonist, which is somewhat surprising considering she’s not actually a person. There is a very plausible reading of this film as a story of self-actualisation, only without the ‘self’, as we see the Young Woman slowly reach self-awareness and choose to leave Jake/The Janitor behind. Finally, ITOET is ruthlessly, almost brutally clear-eyed about Jake’s failings, and never hesitates to make him a pathetic figure. This is a mediocre man who is deeply ashamed of his own mediocrity, and while the film is empathetic towards his very real pain, it is also unwavering in its criticism. Kaufman has made a living out of excoriating the socially isolated, solipsistic straight white male narcissists who serve as the protagonists of his films (including most memorably himself in Adaptation), and ITOET is no exception to this rule.
6. Oddly enough though, while Jake is the central figure of the film, with almost all other characters and even the setting being mere manifestations of his psyche, he is not actually the protagonist. That ‘honour’ goes to the Young Woman, played with immense panache and vibrancy by Jessie Buckley. This is a tremendously difficult role to play, with Buckley having to switch between several manifestations of the Young Woman while still maintaining some form of consistency between them. Buckley also deserves additional kudos for (i) fantastic impressions of Pauline Kael and Gena Rowlands and (ii) never making the Young Woman a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but rather making her feel like a living character, which is highly commendable considering she’s … not. Jesse Plemons also does sterling work as Jake, with his sad-sack, hangdog demeanour only barely masking the roiling insecurity beneath. Plemons has carved out a fine career playing characters hiding their dark sides beneath his conventional all-American exterior, and this is another success in a growing resume. For Jake’s parents, Kaufman has casted two absolute ringers in Toni Collette and David Thewlis, and … look, it’s Toni Collette and David Thewlis. They are spectacular. Of course they are! Nonetheless, it says a lot about how great Jessie Buckley is that even with this murderer’s row of talent around her, it is still undoubtedly her performance that holds the entire movie together.
[SPOILERS STOP HERE]
7. So all in all, would I recommend I’m Thinking Of Ending Things? The answer is a very qualified yes. Yes because, well, it’s a fucking Charlie Kaufman movie. The guy is one of the greatest and most interesting living filmmakers. Any movie of his is always worth watching, and ITOET is no exception. However, I qualify the ‘yes’ because a Kaufman film is not for everyone, especially if you are unwilling or unable to get onto his (very specific) wavelength. Furthermore, it is not a perfect film, with a good ten minutes or so of the usual meta-recursive stuff that could have been cut (particularly in the drive to the ice cream place after the farmhouse) to create a leaner, stronger final product. Like most of Kaufman’s work, it also depends on what your tolerance is for ‘self-indulgence’, because this is the kind of movie that would rather head down scenic detours instead of charging down the highway. (3) As for me, there is nothing I love more than a rigorous examination of the mystery that is consciousness, so I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is right up my alley. It is a film that provokes the mind as much as it touches the heart, a masterpiece made by a bona fide genius that has left me chewing on it for days. In its gnarled, twisted fibres, there is genuine profundity, the kind that you can find only in a true work of art.