“It’s not varnish. That’s not why it smells, you should know that… You don’t have to go. Forward. In time.”
There are a lot of moments in Charlie Kaufman’s latest film that will leave you staring at the screen with your eyebrows furrowed and your mouth slightly agape. (The scene quoted above—in which an eerily-familiar teenager working in an off-brand Dairy Queen tells our heroine that she could remain trapped in the snowy wasteland they’re currently in, if she so chooses—is one of those moments). In a Hollywood where horror and surrealism are beginning to show up even in fun-filled summer rom-coms like Palm Springs, it seems like the new way to get a rise out of an audience is to make them as confused and disconcerted as possible. I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which is a collection of deeply strange characters living in a deeply strange environment, does just that. But are we confused at the expense of our investment? Is Kaufman disconcerting to the point of being inaccessible? Well, the short answer is yes. But there’s a follow-up question: does any of that mean it’s not enjoyable?
Regardless of whether you think this film is a masterpiece or an incomprehensible string of heavy-handed monologues, one thing has to be said: the cast’s performances are unmatched. It’s not just that the cast manages to perfectly embody the uncanny atmosphere of the film, it’s that they do it while also playing all different ages and iterations of their characters. Toni Collette and David Thewlis go from middle-aged to dying to thirty-something and back again, flawlessly. Jessie Buckley embodies a constantly-shifting character with remarkable consistency, and she deserves to walk away from the awards circuit with a bag full of trophies. Half of my mouth-slightly-agape moments were thanks to the quality of performances.
Potential Oscars aside, let’s talk about the unadulterated weirdness of the film. By the time we get to the end of the two-hour runtime, we’ve been through so many tectonic shifts in the timeline, met so many deeply unsettling characters, and seen so many inexplicable visuals, that the cartoon pig and the Oklahoma! performance seem normal by comparison. Like any good surrealist piece, it takes a blank-slate environment (the snowy countryside), adds a few characters who are just a little too exaggerated to be human, and uses them to spin a story that only makes sense in hindsight. Kaufman acclimates us to the world of his movie the way John Green thinks you fall in love: slowly, then all at once. There’s a girl who’s unhappy with her relationship, but unsure of how to break it off. She goes with her boyfriend to meet his parents, and there’s a snowstorm. Okay so far. The boyfriend’s behavior gets stranger and stranger. There’s a dog who can’t stop shaking his head, the boyfriend’s mom has a terrifying, vacant smile and an even scarier laugh, and there are scratches all over the basement door. The main character’s name starts changing from Lucy to Louisa to Yvonne to Ames. Then, just as you’ve accepted all of this, suspended your disbelief, and reminded yourself that movies don’t have to be based in reality, the parents age rapidly and die right in front of us, and the story of how the girl and her boyfriend met changes because a janitor in a completely different location watches the end of a completely different movie. Kaufman gets our defenses lower and lower, so that by the time we get to the last twenty minutes, we’re ready to accept the stage makeup and drawn-out ballet sequence as reality.
Part of the reason we’re so primed to accept all this weirdness is that the film, for all its tangents into the utterly strange, is about something wholly realistic. The relationship between Jake and Lucy is never presented as unrealistic. Yes, it’s dysfunctional, which becomes more and more apparent as the film pulls you along, and yes, both the characters eventually morph into caricatures of the couple we met in the beginning. But through all of this, Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons manage to make an otherwise-impenetrable movie relatable. It’s the strongest point of the movie; the script and the actors team up to create the perfect amount of awkwardness and unspoken tension. Lucy and Jake are exactly as comfortable around each other as they should be, given that Lucy is, well, thinking of ending things and Jake is taking her to meet his parents. Even as their relationship bounces wildly between short-term and long-term and never-happened, they manage to keep a consistency that isn’t seen in any other aspect of the film. Their conversations are an obvious compromise between Jake’s academic explanations and Lucy’s philosophical introspection. They keep discovering new things about each other. They have inside jokes that are never explained to the audience. Even as the world around them spirals into unreality, the connection between them remains solid, giving the audience something to come back to when everything is falling apart. This makes it all the more uncanny when it’s revealed that the couple actually represents two halves of a whole character we only see in passing until the end—the Janitor. Jake is his ideal self, and Lucy is the amalgamation of his current self and his dream girl.
This is where I start to air my grievances. Because Lucy (/Louisa/Lucia/Yvonne/Ames), despite the fact that she carries the film up until the final sequence, is barely a character. She is a vessel through which the Janitor character is able to voice his thoughts and frustrations. She’s an artist and a poet, but all her work is plagiarism. She adopts the characteristics of the artists and characters that she’s compared to, so much so that the actress playing her briefly changes. And yes, she is somewhat aware of her position: “I don’t even know who I am in this whole thing anymore, where I start and Jake stops.” But a meta recognition of a female character’s malleability doesn’t count as an apology for it. Also, the apology is negated by Kaufman’s frequent statements about the malleability of everyone, not just surrealist manic pixie dream girls: “Most people are other people.” Which, yes, is true, but most people are able to combine all those other people into a coherent self. Lucy (/Louisa/Lucia/Yvonne/Ames) doesn’t even get to keep her own name for more than twenty minutes at a time. Did I love watching Jessie Buckley move seamlessly from accent to accent, character variation to character variation? Absolutely. Do I think the movie could have done exactly what it was trying to do without removing any and all substance from Lucy? Maybe not. But maybe that means the movie should’ve been trying to do something else.
Here’s the other thing: the reason I can sit here and write about all the ways the characters change and connect is because I watched the movie a couple times, and between those times I read interview after interview in which Charlie Kaufman broke down the convolution of his film. The second and third times around, I got that Lucy and Jake were actually figments of the Janitor’s imagination because I was watching for clues in the color schemes and framing, but the first time I spent two hours and fourteen minutes in confusion—impressed confusion, but confusion nonetheless. I think there’s something to be said for movies that take a while to piece together—I’m someone who thoroughly enjoys the process, the lightbulb moments of watching a movie for the second time and saying, “oh, that’s what she meant when she said that, that’s what all this was leading up to.” I also think, though, that solving the puzzle of a movie should be an option, not a requirement. You shouldn’t have to watch a movie five times and know the director’s intentions to know what’s going on. And not only does I’m Thinking of Ending Things come with the assumption that you’ll sink a good twenty hours into figuring out the riddle of its plot, it also comes with a syllabus. I’m sure I’d be getting a lot more out of the film if I’d seen A Woman Under the Influence (which Lucy delivers a three-minute monologue about), or read Anna Kavan’s Ice (which Jake references with what seems to be a wink-nudge at the audience), or listened to more of the Oklahoma! soundtrack. But I haven’t, and I don’t plan on adding to my homework load just so I can understand another layer of Kaufman’s script. As a person in film school, I loved this movie. As a person who thinks that movies should be accessible to people who aren’t in film school, I think it was mediocre at best and indecipherable at worst. I do think that it was inaccessible without being condescending, though. Kaufman leaves plenty of clues for solving the mystery, if you’re interested in looking for them. It’s not much, but compared to the other surrealist films, like Mulholland Drive, it’s certainly not nothing.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the pinnacle of weird-as-hell movies. It turns every expectation you have on its head, for better or worse. It’s long-winded and it never makes sense, even for a second, but there’s room to puzzle it out if you’re not content to sit back and feel confused. If you like it when a movie is just a little bit frustrating, you’ll love it. Even if you hate that, you’ll love Jessie Buckley. And regardless of which side you’re on, I think you’ll see it come awards season, and I think it will have earned whatever it gets.
By Jack Loney