A Charlie Kaufman film asks a lot of questions; questions about the world, our relationships, and the fundamental nature of human existence. His stories often deal in existentialism and, more frequently than not, the answers to those questions are rarely easy to obtain. That is assuming that there even are answers to those questions.
His newest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is an adaptation of Ian Reid’s acclaimed novel of the same name. No other Kaufman project feels as of-the-times as this one. In a period where, collectively, we are asking more questions than ever, it feels apt to watch a narrative like this unfold. There is a moroseness here that isn’t present in Kaufman’s other work.
This is Kaufman’s least accessible work to date that, at points, rivals to David Lynch’s pension for the abstract. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is surrealist commentary at its finest, as it weaves in-and-out of reality at a moment’s notice. Its dreamlike editing and cinematography only further the sense that there is more at play than what we’re being shown.
Jessie Buckley’s character, who the subtitles attribute “Young Yoman”, continually experiences name changes. Sometimes she’s Lucy. Sometimes she’s Yvonne. And sometime’s, she’s someone else entirely named Ames. Her profession changes from poet to landscape painter to a physicist in the span of one dinner conversation. These changes can come at any point and for those with inquisitive minds, Kaufman sprinkles in a litany of callbacks for viewers to decipher.
On the surface, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about a couple taking a trip to a farmhouse during an intense snowstorm. The cold harsh setting makes for an oppressively bleak tone, which never relents throughout the 134-minute runtime. Each audacious moment only raises the anxiety of what we’re not seeing. The snow often obstructs how we see the Young Woman and Jake (Jesse Plemons), as if to indicate the ambiguity and imbalance of their relationship. Kaufman uses this structure as a means to explore a smorgasbord of different theories, ideas, and feelings.
A prominent motif in the film is the passage of time and how one ages in society’s eyes. If Kaufman is keen on anything, it’s how humans interact with each other. In a sense, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a plea for sympathy.
Jake explains that society tends to label, categorize, and then woefully discard older people. It’s also mentioned that children often will blame their insecurities and trauma on their mothers without being aware of the baggage that parents themselves carry. “I don’t think we know how to be human anymore,” he says. We lack that willingness to be kind to those who struggle with the unfamiliar. Ageism and lack of empathy for the elderly can be seen in bits of the media we consume and maybe from our own experiences.
When the Young Woman and Jake arrive at the farmhouse, the film begins to veer down darker pathways. Decaying animals, winding, creaking stairs, and other surreal imagery are shown during these sequences which hauntingly begins to edge closer to horror. The imagery begins to visually depict the tone that’s been set.
One moment in particular that will send chills down your spine is when the group sits down for dinner. The conversation at the dinner table plays in a circle – one that is constantly interrupted by anecdotes and meandering comments. One of the overarching themes is discussed here, however, and that is loneliness.
Jake’s lack of friends throughout his life has led to an adulthood that is defined by desperation. He’s desperate for a romantic connection. It’s clear when he invites a girl to meet his parents after “dating” for a few weeks. The constant connections to the production of Oklahoma! can be linked to these feelings.
Kaufman argues that the world is alienating and discourages us from connecting. To be old is to have lived a life full of highs, lows, and everything in-between. Yet, when you age, sometimes it can feel like the world is just moving on without you. The old janitor in the film is used to personify this feeling. Not only that, but our bodies also fall victim to ailments. One crushing line that Jake tells the Young Woman perfectly summarizes this point, “You can’t see, and you’re invisible.”
The weightiness of the themes can be a bitter pill to swallow. In the film’s final moments, some of the loose ends are finally tied up. It concludes with a beautiful, yet haunting musical number, which references Jake’s affinity for Oklahoma!. There is a wholesome moment here that offers a brief reprieve of sorts.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a delightfully obtuse puzzle that yearns to be solved. Chances are, multiple viewings will bring some further things to light. Still, in a career full of masterpieces, it’s one of Charlie Kaufman’s most bold and challenging works to date.