REEL Review – I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

Director: Charlie Kaufman | 2h 15mins | Drama, Thriller

A young woman (Jessie Buckley) joins her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) on a road trip to his parents farmhouse to meet them for the first time. Once there though, things start to take a nightmarish turn.

Charlie Kaufman’s earliest work cemented him as the king of meta-cinema, watching his movies through an amplified lens that stretches outside the confines of narrative structure, playfully nodding to the viewer and human psyche as he does. As his voice becomes more and more melancholic over the years, his newest film feels like dreary inside look at life and how time can pass through us unexpectedly.

That’s how I felt when watching it, but it’s definitely a film that relies on it’s audiences specific interpretation. Starting from a basic plot point and evolving into a Lynchian-esque nightmare (with an odd Oklahoma! tie in), Kaufman is ready to test you like he’s never done before. But how do you review a movie with no clear story? Trying to make out just what’s happening in this film is just as difficult as understanding life itself, but it makes for an absorbing watch.

The film starts with a young girl waiting in the snow (played subtly and brilliantly by Jessie Buckley), waiting for her boyfriend to pick her up so they can visit his parents remote farmhouse. This is the calmest point of the movie, as the young woman, who adopts different names through the film, begins to inner monologue about her relationship with her boyfriend Jake. Even at it’s calmest moments though Kaufman isn’t afraid to spice it up, testing our expectations of simple conversation but fleeting in and out of the car with his camera. The conversation stays in the car but unlike the young woman, we are able to momentarily escape outside the window or to the hood. Kaufman is challenging something here, but what it does do is set up the rise in weird that’s about to happen.

Kaufman’s direction here is quite unsettling, just like life we go from introducing our girlfriend to our parents, to having to care for them on their deathbed, all in what feels like a flash.

Once at the farmhouse Jake and the woman are greeted by an uncomfortably long wave exchange with Jake’s mother. Surrounded by deep snow and a sense of insolation, the eerie tone starts giving off remnants of a horror. The house, while traditional and inoffensive, still has this feeling inside, and when the four characters sit down for dinner it all begins to get weirder. There is uncertainty radiating from every inch of the screen, a dog that won’t stop shaking it’s head, Jake’s strange coldness to his parents as they reminisce and the unhinged stares shared between everyone. Maybe the uncertainty is key here – after all life is unplanned, a labyrinth we are left to follow not knowing what’s going to come next, which leaves a morbid uncertainty in your mind when you’re left to think about it too much, and it definitely feels like Kaufman has been thinking about it a lot.

One line that may stick with you as you watch this is when Jesse Plemon’s thoughtfully says: “I suspect humans are the only animals that know the inevitability of their own death.” This is the film’s retrospective glance at how we as humans are able to fear death, and so we fear time too. Time plays a key role in this film, as the bulk of the scenes taking place in the house are filled with time jumping surrealism. Kaufman’s direction here is quite unsettling, just like life we go from introducing our girlfriend to our parents, to having to care for them on their deathbed, all in what feels like a flash. It’s 20 minutes of mind-numbing thought that’s probably the films strongest part, weaving confusion and bleakness to provoke our own thought process on our own lives.

The film very often likes to quote numerous scholars and writers, even in one scene mimicking that of a film critic, using these ideas to raise more questions about what you’re watching. This is where the film can begin to lose you, it’s at it’s best when it’s tempting it’s audience into reflection, but struggles to do this when it’s ramming quotations down your throat. That, and a final act that begins to lose you, are what bring this film down in quality. A final act that begins to take a whole new shape through a dance number and an old naked man following a pig, even the most intellectual viewer won’t be able to suss it the first time round.

But, for all it’s incoherent plot and jolting last act, I’m Thinking of Ending Things does something that not many films can, absorbing you enough to the point where you challenge your own thought process. It’s a daring film to make for Kaufman, and for the most part, the risk pays off.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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