I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Colby Minifie, Jason Ralph
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the latest mind-bending offering from the absurdly creative film auteur of both screenwriting and directing, Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York), loosely adapted from the novel of the same name by Canadian author Iain Reid, has arrived on Netflix to a similar level of noise as Tenet forged upon its arrival into cinemas not two weeks before, the streaming giant’s first big autumnal release dividing opinion and challenging perspectives in a fashion that has become typical of Kaufman’s genre-busting, dream-like journeys into neuroses. For some, this neurotic art-house offering is indecipherable, while for others it is a sensationally twisted journey into the mind’s eye of its somewhat fabled auteur, Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose) and Jesse Plemons (The Irishman) headlining the list of names going along for the ride in a film that can at least unite these pros and cons under the banner of “not what anyone expected”. This film, released five long years after Kaufman’s last (Anomalisa), is anything but straight forward. But, for those of the appropriate mindset and willingness to ride out moments of sheer confusion, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is more than capable of foraging deep into your subconscious.
There’s a distinct relationship between Kaufman’s work here and that of Andrei Tarkovsky, particularly in the film’s first two acts. Like the great Russian auteur, Kaufman creates a sense of unease that is perpetuated by increasingly unusual and unnatural events, and introduces elements that cause you to question the film’s reality at a steady and determinative pace. The film is shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, a more square visual space not unlike Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1.37:1), and is filled with long, lingering shots that work to emphasise the unease or awkwardness of a scene. Photographed by Łukasz Żal, whose work on Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) and Cold War (2018) earned him Best Cinematography Oscar nominations and also brought the Polish director praiseworthy comparisons to Tarkovsky, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a beautiful and always purposeful visual journey unlike anything released in 2020.
Kaufman has long been a filmmaker with a very particular sensibility that aims to portray reality as it exists within the mind, not as it exists as an observable space, and the combination of Żal’s photography and the punctuation of Robert Frazen’s noticeable choices of cuts in the editing booth are vital parts of realising his genuinely haunting screenplay. Kaufman made his name creating heady stories for the likes of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and the influences of these off-kilter and visually creative filmmakers is clear here, Kaufman realising his own work in the image of how Jonze and Gondry realised his subconscious-diving earlier pieces in their own widely praised movies. On the page, I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t too dissimilar either, visualising the internal and perceived, literally bringing to life innate human insecurities. As was the case with both of the critically praised aforementioned Kaufman screenplays, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is also littered with comedic elements and offers its own variations of the unnerving but hilarious scene in Being John Malkovich where Malkovich plays every character in a restaurant, or the similarly unusual moment in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where protagonist Joel (Carrey) relives a memory of himself as a baby. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is generally Tarkovsky-esque, sure, but in this way it is also unmistakably a Kaufman film.
Interestingly, this work more than perhaps any other feels influenced by the legendary authorial work of David Foster Wallace, Kaufman showing a similar intent to unravel popular culture’s place in our collective consciousness. In recent years we have seen a slew of pop culture-referencing cinema, the most easily recognisable being Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, but here the choices of reference are more intrinsic to the experience and more vital to our understanding of the characters. The film diverts from passive aggressive dialogue into a distinctly photographed monologue from Buckley’s character (who receives different names throughout) about a Sam Peckinpah film, the monologue being lifted almost directly from the commentary of one of its stars, offering insight into the values of Plemons’ Jake, who could be read as forging a reason to believe a relationship isn’t right for him or alternatively remembering any number of less than fortunate moments in which he felt loss, or at least the catalyst of it. Similarly, the closing monologue from Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind is lifted word for word, suggesting that the protagonist is cruelly playing out his cinema-born wish of things eventually being worth the anguish and pain of life and loss, and there’s even a sharp detachment from in-universe affairs to mock the wholly nostalgic and some would say cheesy work of Robert Zemeckis, though this is played as more an expression of the character’s feelings than those of the filmmaker’s.
It is, however, impossible to decipher where Kaufman’s opinion ends and where those of his characters begin, an element of his films that has become something of a trademark. Like in Adaptation, where he had the nerve to write himself into the central role of a screenplay about a man trying to adapt a book into a screenplay (yes, it was that meta), I’m Thinking of Ending Things not only feels like a unique exploration of characters and a moving portrait of longing for something better, but it is also intrinsic to Kaufman himself, his style of neurotic, heady and meta narratives not only regurgitated here but developed upon in the distinctly authorial fashion of a true film auteur. Netflix can count themselves lucky to have someone such as Kaufman on their books.
Ultimately, unlike the aforementioned Tenet, which received similar criticisms regarding it being indecipherable, I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t simply a pursuit of spectacle in which the filmmaker has heightened every element of formulaic pre-existing beats, themes and genre staples to create what is in his mind the ultimate modern version of a classic film. It is instead an astute, intelligent and self-aware creation of its own, one that is seeking to both create something unique and expand upon the ongoing themes, styles and sensibilities of its creator – a truly remarkable piece of art worthy of the type of exhibition it shall never receive on the small screens broadcasting the world’s most popular streaming service.