Darkly compelling and brilliantly unreliable, Philip Kaufman’s “I am Thinking of Ending Things” is an imploded kaleidoscope filled with the broken shards of a life.
On a cold winter’s day, a young woman in a duffel coat and beret waits on a sidewalk in a small American town. Her new boyfriend, Jake, is picking her up. They are on their way to his parents’ remote farmhouse. It’s a long drive. Day turns to night, and the conversation alternates between awkwardness and displays of erudition, as snow flurries becoming increasingly dense.
I am thinking of ending things, the young woman thinks to herself, and to her surprise, she notices that her boyfriend, at times, seems to hear more than sense her thoughts. Their conversation, about musicals, films, novels, and poetry, is punctuated by inner monologues. They discuss David Foster Wallace, and Jake’s words sound like the writer’s, often in a voice that sounds like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s.
Jake says he doesn’t like musicals, though the course of events reveals he is his own unreliable narrator, and with a sense that his life is not unlike that of the ill-fated character Jud Fry in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s darker-than-one-thinks musical “Oklahoma”.
The rhythm of the couple’s words is soothing despite the unease. The young woman recites a poem she says she has written, and the cadence of each verse becomes as hypnotic as the snowflakes rushing by, as the car inexorably advances mile by mile into darkness. The young couple in the car appears suspended in time. It seems increasingly unlikely that they will ever reach their destination.
Based on Iain Reid’s eponymous 2016 novel, Kaufman’s tale delights in its unreliable narration and contrapuntal architecture, and takes the story in a direction far from the original. There is plenty of fun to be had, as always in Kaufman’s work, in dissecting all the references, parallels and McGuffins*.
Doing so might be a distraction, building a trap of the kind, perhaps, Jake himself fell into long ago, and which might have contributed to his sorrows: the need to be clever and smart and knowledgeable colliding with the feeling that one is on the periphery of things. This is all predicated on the assumption that there are central things one must be part of, and that one’s life is a failure if it is not scintillating with intellectual achievement, social recognition, and reciprocated love.
Kaufman points exactly to that hubristic illusion and attempt at compensation in a scene towards the film’s end, which references the awards ceremony in the 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind”. A parable about a life blighted by self-disappointment dances around the illusions of the American dream – does it subvert or reinforce those illusions? At face value, it is hard to say, because “I am Thinking of Ending Things” appears to imply that a rich life of the mind is not quite consolation enough for the disappointments and losses of life, and the big hurts of childhood. In admitting this, it nevertheless offers one last flourish and a graceful coda.
This is a big film with a small cast, with a quartet at its centre: Jesse Plemons as Jake and Jesse Buckley as the girlfriend with no name yet many, and Toni Collette and David Thewlis as the parents out of time. They are all extraordinary performers, and are compelling in transforming a dialogue-heavy script into a moving experience. The pleasure in these performances cannot be understated.
The story is deeply absorbing and immersive, and gives the vivid sense that time is both ever-present yet irretrievably gone. This sense is amplified by Łukasz Żal’s subtle cinematography – Żal’s previous credits include the beautifully photographed Dovlatov, directed by Alexei German Jr.
“I am Thinking of Ending Things” is a work steeped in the uncanny which while it hints at horror, borrowing some of the genre’s tropes and cues, delivers instead only horror of a purely existential kind. Go past the uncanny and there is love and tenderness, and a dizzying sense that as time goes by, while what is lost can perhaps never be recaptured, maybe something else can be gained.
* There is a school janitor in this story some commentators have identified as key to the story – that he is ‘the’ explanation. Consider the possibility that this janitor is just another McGuffin.
Now streaming on Netflix.
Director and Writer Charlie Kaufman
Based on the novel by Iain Reid
DoP Łukasz Żal
With Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and David Thewlis
If this film has left you fascinated but maybe too unsettled, here is an antidote – a piece by the writer Vicky Grut which addresses the same themes but from a brighter perspective, quoting Henri Bergson on ‘the continuous melody of our inner life’, and Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture musings on W.H. Auden’s poem, ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’.