Release Date: September 4th, 2020
Director: Charlie Kaufman | MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 7/10
“Cogito, ergo sum.” -Rene Descartes
There is an innately disorienting element to the human experience, one that can often paralyze us in the midst of introspective reflection. Because we assume we are capable of perceiving what is real and what might not be, a descent into the abyss of our minds can sometimes produce puzzling questions, challenges to the most fundamental assumptions about who we are and why we are here. This division–that is, a perceived split between what seems to be real around us and how it corresponds with our minds–has become a staple of our philosophical pursuits; Descartes’ words above (“I think, therefore I am”), written back in 1637 and the subject of endless examination and scrutiny, remind us of the pedigree of this historic struggle. Given its intrinsic connectedness to our humanity, this tension has regularly been explored throughout movie history as well – recall Neo’s choice in The Matrix or the final scene of Inception, two recent and accessible explorations of this human wrestle with the real.
Though I have absorbed a variety of films that deal with such wrestling, I have found few that so palpably embody the existential angst between the real and the perceived as Charlie Kaufman‘s recent project, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. An adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, the film shuns genre and structure in favor of deep exploration. In typical Kaufmanian fashion (see Being John Malcovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the audience is constantly attempting to parse plot and purpose simultaneously, and is always drawn underneath the story itself to more resonant, deeper themes.
In this newest film, Kaufman introduces us to Lucy (Jessie Buckley) , a young woman whose thoughts narrate the duration of the film. Early on she describes an inner, complicated apprehension related to her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons); in one sense, she maintains a deep connection to him, and in another sense her actions regularly illustrate a sense of distance and disillusionment with him and the relationship as a whole. Despite her seeming misgivings, she joins Jesse in traveling to his parents farmhouse for a classic Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner setup. Yet this movie goes well beyond its thriller/horror genre designation, and while it clearly pays homage to its predecessors both former and recent, it quickly becomes clear that it has other designs in mind while using those familiar tropes.
Only a few minutes into their car ride, we find that oddities already abound. Despite her own internal monologue, on multiple occasions Lucy has her thoughts interrupted by Jake, almost as if he is able to read her mind. There are numerous early cutaways to an anonymous old man during their drive. An unceasing snowstorm blankets any real vision of geographic markers beyond their car. Claustrophobia exacerbates the already tangible relationship tension as we are stuck in the car with them–this is helped by the 4:3 aspect ratio–and at one point Lucy even turns over her shoulder and looks directly into the camera, as if addressing the audience to pay astute attention to what is happening. Eventually they arrive at the farmhouse, and at this point–per genre expectations–the film seems to be progressing predictably into a sinister spin on Meet The Parents (the Get Out parallels leap from the screen). Kaufman even employs Toni Collette, star of the terribly unnerving 2018 film Hereditary, as Jake’s mother, providing additional meta-commentary that reinforces our expectations of ensuing creepiness. And yet, each time Kaufman arrives at the precipice of horror/thriller images or moments, he swiftly pulls away into a more disorienting and reflective space. While perhaps jarring for those expecting a different film, it serves to pull the audience into the characters, as if literally entering into their fleeting half-thoughts and dreams.
These odd occurrences increase exponentially, to the degree where one is no longer even able to designate the difference between reality and unreality (or, at points, nightmare); indeed, we begin to question whether “Lucy” is even Lucy’s real name, whether Jake’s parents are even real, and so forth. We find ourselves aboard a ship of symbolic confusion, attempting to put the pieces together as we go, but just as soon as Kaufman could lose us, he avoids a categorical sinking altogether by pointing us deeper into Lucy, Jake, and the house.
And this is where we find the writer-director at his best: working underneath the surface. It is abundantly clear that a linear storyline is not even a primary concern for this film, which should come as no surprise to Kaufman stans. Instead, what matter are the dynamics underneath the story. Through the conversations between Jake, Lucy, Jake’s parents, and other supplementary (and often mysterious) characters, the film’s third act changes tone and pace dramatically, becoming a sort of dreamscape canvas for reflection on life, mortality, and the nature of reality. The result is a film that intrigues as much as it alienates, that is at once curiously approachable and pretentiously degrading to an audience who has had the rug pulled out from under them.
In the end, this sort of simultaneous push and pull seems to be a palpable incarnation of the characters’ own journeys. In this way, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things stands as a clever manifestation of the human consciousness: complicated, scattered, brilliant, confounding. And while entering the brain of another human may not sound like the most enticing endeavor (particularly the mind of someone like Charlie Kaufman), it nonetheless proves to be a bold, if not arrogantly flawed, work of adventurous inner exploration. If you are thinking of ending things early, keep driving: you might just find something profound in the midst of a messy mind.