By Christian DiMartino
2020, as you know, has been dreadful. But you know it’s a good week whenever you not only get a movie from Christopher Nolan, but also a movie from Charlie Kaufman. It may be a terrible time to be alive, but man what a treat.
Nolan, one of the most most creative minds making movies today, of course brought us back to the big screen with Tenet, which people aren’t loving for some reason. Well, if that film was divisive, chances are Kaufman’s film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, will prove to somehow be even more divisive.
Folks, this is the weirdest movie of 2020. And one of the best.
Kaufman is also one of the most creative minds making movies today, yet it’s been a good five years since his last film, the unique and beautiful animated feature Anomalisa. His screenplays are so creative in the way that not only are they bold, shoot-the-works inventions but also they sometimes tap into the soul. His work can be quirky, and weird, but this is a guy who is filled with audacity and vision. He puts said audacity and vision to great use in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which premiered on Netflix September 4th. It’s a shame that this film, like many this year, won’t be seen on the big screen. Yet it also doesn’t surprise me that a major studio didn’t want it. It’s too much of an original work for a market that thrives upon recycling.
What is there to say about this film? A lot, and yet nothing. To discuss it wouldn’t be to spoil it, but also, it’s a film that should be seen without much in the way of information. I avoided every trailer, and went into it knowing it was a Kaufman film. What I got was a film that is all kinds of bizarre- perhaps the weirdest film since Darren Aronofsky’s mother!– not to mention a film that elicits dread in interesting ways. Yet it’s the kind of film I typically love and respond to, as I did here.
Jessie Buckley, excellent in last year’s Wild Rose, plays Lucy… or maybe it’s something else. Throughout, different names are used. The film is very fascinating in the way it depends upon its audience’s attention to detail. Anyways, as the film opens, we hear Lucy’s inner thoughts. She is the one who is thinking of ending things. We’re left to assume that she is referring to her relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemmons), a nice and smart fella who has a lot for him, but as she points out, there is just something off about him.
The first twenty minutes or so provide an interesting form of discomfort, as we see Lucy and Jake riding in a car together to visit his parents in the middle of a snowstorm. The discomfort in these scenes stems from the fact that Lucy and Jake are on different wavelengths: she’s contemplating her life choices, and her inner- monologue is consistently interrupted by Jake’s consistently mundane observations. He’s a nice guy, but also awkward, and rather than just sharing silence, he just keeps going.
If these moments make you squirm, just wait until what follows. The rest of this first half feels like the set-up to a horror movie. We meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), and if you thought Jake was strange, his parents are in a whole new Milky Way of weird. They’re over the top, overly emotional and just… strange. There are strange occurrences both before and after their dinner (particularly after), but otherwise the plot details will probably have to come to a close here. It must be said though that throughout the film, it constantly cuts back to a janitor who may or may not be the older version of Jake, who watches corny movies and observes everyone around his work environment. I have reasons for mentioning this, but I can’t share those reasons.
The first half of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is so uncomfortably weird that I couldn’t help but laugh, mostly because I didn’t know how to react. It does have the makings of a horror movie, but it isn’t. It’s simply just… strange, as Kaufman likes it. It’s so bizarre that one wonders if it could get even weirder. The answer is: yes, yes it can. The film leads to a conclusion that reveals everything, and also absolutely nothing.
Spending an evening with Jake and his family would probably have any normal person thinking of ending things, and chances are after this first half, the viewer make think of ending things too. If this is not at all your thing, it’s definitely understandable. This sort of thing happens to be my bread and butter. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is certainly unusual, and yet there’s not much out there like it.
To me, the film works in the way that something like Mulholland Dr. works. Kaufman lays all of the pieces out there, puts them in strange places, and leaves it for us to figure it out. Yet what’s even more fascinating about this film is that it is probably a movie with multiple interpretations. It is based on a novel, which Kaufman’s films usually aren’t, but his DNA is all over this film. It’s nutty, awkward and rather maddening, but also undeniably creative. The way Kaufman likes it.
Buckley and Plemmons are truly excellent here. Buckley in particular, as a woman who, like us, has no idea what the hell is going on. Why are these things happening? Are they even happening? Is she even there? Collette and Thewlis are a hoot too. Frightening and cuckoo, they make quite the impression and in interesting ways.
I’ll just say it: I love this film. It’s richly layered and intriguing, expertly crafted and crisply filmed. It takes an already awkward scenario like meeting in-laws and turns it all the way to 11, and then pulls the rug out from under us. Kaufman, like his film, is a true original, and even though the film is based off of someone else’s material, he makes this material purely his. By the time the film ends, chances are you won’t know what hit you. I laughed because of the nuttiness of it, and yet upon reflection, it’s actually a rather beautiful story, just told in a whacky fashion. I think? Kaufman has given us yet another work that will probably cause you to yank your hair out. It’s certainly an acquired taste, but films this original and daring don’t come across often.
Kaufman has hinted that this might be his last film. I loved the perhaps equally maddening Synecdoche, New York and the intimate Anomalisa, but with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, he may have made his finest directorial outing. If this is his last film, he’s going out in quite the bonkers fashion. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Note: For whatever reason, WordPress has changed their format. So from this point on, I suppose I will be using a letter grade system.