While failing to be wholly accessible, Kaufman's poetics, style and brand of filmmaking proves to be masterful for all those willing to stick to the end and decipher the film's many hidden meanings.
When sitting down to watch Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, it’s not immediately clear what the film is about, or even how to approach it as a viewer. On the one hand, it’s an existential foray into ‘what ifs’ and missed opportunities, contrasting “what could have been” against “what has been”, in a heartbreaking exploration of normality and mundane against the face of time and regret. On the other hand, it’s an unsettling psychological unravelling of characters and people as it delves in the murky depths of philosophy, psychology, and even humanity, often breaching cinematic conventions to pull us uncomfortably close towards the unfolding drama. What I’m Thinking of Ending Things definitely is though, is a cinematic accomplishment that will prove unmatched and unlike anything viewers have ever seen before, proving to be more than just typical viewing pleasure. In fact, I’m Thinking of Ending Things could almost be called a masterpiece and is a sheer testament to the creative genius that is Charlie Kaufman.
Based on Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, the story follows Jake (Jesse Plemons) on a road-trip to visit his parents with his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley). During the car journey, they both launch into lengthy conversations about poetry, art, philosophy and many other things, with these conversations continuously reappearing throughout the film. However, everything is not as it seems when Jake’s parents are introduced, and the world begins to unravel in complicated but engrossing ways.
At times, it feels completely meta as a creeping sense of horror and melancholy underscores many of the film’s moments and scenes, pushing into unique areas away from conventional drama fare. It’s utterly brilliant, with much of it being driven through lengthy scenes of conversations and exposition that carries the scenes moment to moment, alongside developing its narrative in multiple ways. While it’s essential to recognise an over-arching narrative, it’s storytelling is segmented into many moments and conversations that makes it just as much about many other things, which is where much of the film’s enjoyment and complexity arises.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is driven by an air of interpretation which is quite different from what mainstream audiences would expect, but will be familiar to those akin with Kaufman’s previous work. There’s nothing that feels clearcut and different people will take different things away from the film. However, that may limit its enjoyment for some viewers who are used to being spoon-fed stories in a linear fashion as Kaufman’s film feels like navigating an alien alphabet at times. Although I found this to be utterly enthralling, I also acknowledge that this isn’t going to be to everyone’s liking.
On the other hand, it wasn’t until I watched the film for a second time that I was confident in what my interpretation drew away from it, and while it helped me understand all the exciting details and choices that Kaufman packs into its 2hrs 15mins running time, it also helped cement the sheer craftsmanship that went into the film. Carried by excellent performances in its leading duo, Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley, the film also revolves expertly around using more senior actors like Toni Collette and David Thewlis. Unarguably, it’s both Collette and Thewlis that serve well towards the film’s unsettling air, delivering superb performances that also left me feeling unnerved and uncomfortable with the direction their character’s often drove the narrative. Plemons and Buckley are also excellently cast and they never feel inferior to the talent around them. In fact, with Plemons characteristically shy awkwardness (reminiscent of his turn as Robert Daly in the Black Mirror episode, USS Callister) and Buckley’s often outspoken opinionated approach to everything around her, their onscreen presence makes for an infatuating watch. They both weave the different narrative strands with unmatched excellency that shows them as formidable actors that feel like they genuinely are their characters and creating a sense of likeness that makes them feel to real to be in a film.
In fact, it’s Kaufman’s writing paired with excellent acting and his unorthodox approach that makes I’m Thinking of Ending Things more human than other films. From Buckley staring directly into the camera when caught in a reverie, the conversations about issues and world ideas, and a depth to the characters that often felt unmatched, it’s like peering into a world not dissimilar to our own. Coincidentally, this makes us care intrinsically about the characters whilst feeling genuinely unnerved when normality is disrupted, as strange events that juxtapose the “mundaneness” of conversations create a creeping sense of dread that’s both real and inescapable. Like the notion of depression that Buckley’s character often alludes to when recounting the poem ‘Bonedog’, or staring at expressionist landscapes, the forced familiarity with her character makes the film feel so much more real and encompassing. At times, Kaufman’s way of writing for Buckley’s character seems hopeless and tragic, and it works in both moving the audience as well as trapping us within a temporal rut.
But Kaufman’s talents extend much further than his script and casting choices, and it’s perhaps through the cinematography, mise-en-scène and sound design that everything is cohesively brought together. Cinematographer Łukasz Żal works a sense of magic throughout that never sets out to complicate anything, and provides visual splendour within its tight 4:3 aspect ratio. Whether it be the camera peering through a snow-frosted window, or placing characters directly centre of shot as the mise-en-scene expands around them, the film always has a distinct visual appeal that isn’t complicated with needless angels or glamorous shots. It’s simple but effective and works well in helping fortify a nuanced and subtle approach to the often unnerving nature. It also helps the approach to mise-en-scene; with an abundance of static shots that may sit comfortably for a few minutes, there is something that would almost be symmetrical except for one intentionally placed item that would throw it off-balance. In a film that slowly becomes more unsettling, it’s these little additions that just furthered my own discomfort and perfectly embodied the film as a whole.
I loved watching I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but I don’t think I’ll rewatch it anytime soon. It’s beautifully crafted within both its script and filmmaking, and I would encourage anyone to seek it out, but it’s not a film I could endlessly revisit. It rewards patience and everyone will take something different away from it, and while it does have a definitive narrative somewhere, its enjoyment is primarily derived from taking away what you interpret from it. As the credits rolled, it’s tough to fully comprehended the magnitude of this masterful adaptation.