When one door closes in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, some are locked, others left ajar and one which opens memories long buried in the basement is definitely off limits.
Director Charlie Kaufman leads us on a not-so-merry dance across these thresholds, literal and figurative, and into the beguiling, psychological maze of his latest film. Adapted from Canadian author Iain Reid’s debut novel of the same name for the screen, Kaufman lets us loose inside a thoroughly confusing, insidious vision of the mind to largely fend for ourselves.
The Being John Malkovich writer muses once more on the power of thought, feeling and the nature of internal and external self-awareness. “The world’s larger than the inside of your own head,” says Jake (Jesse Plemons) to his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) as they make fairly heavy small-talk on a road trip through a blizzard to meet his parents for the first time. The physical vehicle for this voyage of discovery is his car, and in the loosest terms, the journey to and from the isolated family farm in rural Oklahoma is the narrative bones on which Kaufman hangs this story.
But this is really as far as any external ‘reality’ goes. It is the girlfriend’s internal conundrum and voice, deciding whether she should persist with this nascent relationship, where the conflict and confusion of this dense, hypnotic plot lies. The film’s title is a pondering refrain, repeated throughout whilst she ruminates on the pros and cons, but could the ‘ending’ of which she speaks be something altogether more serious, and final? I’m Thinking of Ending Things is far more than a will-they, won’t-they, let’s-embarrass-the-son-in-front-of-his-parents couples dramedy, and the quirky comedic elements which litter most of Kaufman’s writings are almost entirely absent here. It is a considerably more sinister, cynical work which becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the metaphysical walls close in.
The air of unease, the lack of comfortable silence, the probing and sniping of the dialogue-heavy interactions between the couple tell of unsteady ground when all should really be lollipops, rainbows and displays of affection only a matter of weeks into a relationship. The fact that the girlfriend is not sure how long it has been speaks to a film where time is intangibly fluid and ethereal. During the drive out, cinematographer Lukasz Zal (Ida, Cold War) encloses the young woman and Jake in the car with a squared-off aspect and uses close-ups to great effect in internal scenes throughout. We sit on the bonnet, looking back at them, never forward, unable to see over the horizon due to the snow and darkness. Never entirely sure what we are seeing, but always at close quarters.
The visual metaphors come in thick and fast, and the clues are there, but are fleeting allusions. The snow quickly covers over the tracks of where we’ve been; blink for a second and you’ll miss them. And even then, piecing the disparate thoughts together is made near-impossible by sidelining jumps of time and place elsewhere – most notably to a janitor (Guy Boyd) going about his daily routine of cleaning a school late at night. Who is he? After a suitably awkward dinner with mum and dad (a terrific pairing of Toni Collette and David Thewlis, who teams up with Kaufman again after 2016’s Anomalisa), from one click of the fingers to the next they age dramatically, are younger again, in fine health and sickly ill. What are we witnessing here? An expedited history of past, present and future, perhaps.
And as anecdotes are told and feigned pleasantries are exchanged Jake’s girlfriend’s identity shifts. The young woman’s name is either Lisa, Louisa or Lucy, she receives concerning voice messages from herself – in another voice, and she might be a physicist, a poet, a waitress or a painter. Is she even real, or a projection of all of Jake’s lost loves? Are his well-intentioned gestures and attentiveness towards her sincere, or is he dangerous? It’s hard to say, but Buckley’s performance is terrific, ably handling this mercurial shift in point of view, person and understanding with real conviction – even if her character is lost somewhere in the ether. Confused? You will be. But Kaufman’s latest work, a creeping, deeply unsettling, cerebral horror of sorts, is a further addition to his challenging, thought-provoking brand of filmmaking which gets under your skin, and stays there.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63