I must admit something before we get any further into this review. While watching Charlie Kaufman’s new movie i’m thinking of ending things (2020), I mostly had no sense of what I was watching or what exactly was happening. I undoubtedly liked what I saw, how it made me consider the concepts on display, and the general Lynchian vibe that Kaufman unfurled, but even so, I remained utterly confounded by it. I would love to say that the end pulled together all of these feelings and reflections into some sort of digestible take-away, but that is not the case. It is only after watching, re-watching, and coming just short of diagramming the various scenes and my feelings in relation to them that my comprehension of this film finally settled into something resembling awe. Therefore, writing about i’m thinking of ending things requires a setting aside of the traditional avenues I would usually take to explicate a movie, and so I ask only that you join me down the rabbit hole.
i’m thinking of ending things is unconcerned with plot and is content to march through feelings and time in a strictly non-linear way. Yet, there is a basic backbone of a story to latch on to. Young Woman, as she is credited, though she is referred to at different times as Lucy, Louisa, or Amy, (Jessie Buckley) drives through a snowstorm with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons) to meet his parents Mother (Toni Collette) and Father (David Thewlis). That’s the set up, but in all actuality, the film is hardly bothered by examining that plot in any way that could be considered a traditional narrative structure. Instead, the journey to see Jake’s parents, the night spent in their house, and the drive away serve as a series of fractured still life settings. Within them, Kaufman, as writer and director, destabilizes our sense of time and space to examine his characters’ identities and relationships to that time and space. In that regard, i’m thinking of ending things never settles into a traceable plot, but that does not stop Kaufman from building a cinematic symphony of chaos.
Kaufman wastes no time in establishing that this filmic world is abnormal, something he does in two main settings that make up the majority of the film; Jake’s car, and his childhood home. We meet Young Woman as she waits for Jake to pick her up in the aforementioned car, and we are privy to her thoughts, an ongoing monologue as she reflects on how their relationship is not working and how she is “thinking of ending things.” Yet, once she gets in the car, it seems that Jake hears her thoughts, becoming antsy and interrupting her reflections whenever her internal narration strays towards the realm of concrete reasons for them to break up. The result is a stilted and anxiety-inducing conversation that makes you wonder how this relationship has lasted even seven weeks when they cannot sustain a conversation about anything. Normally, a driving scene like this would pass rather quickly, but Kaufman ratchets up the discomfort by sustaining it for nearly 20 minutes of angst-ridden narration and conversation. It is a mood setter in every way. That mood is amplified by the way he shoots it, alternating between cramped close-ups within the car, to medium shots from outside, using the car’s frame and falling snow to obscure and restrict visual access to our characters. Furthermore, if you’re paying close enough attention, you notice that the Young Woman’s earrings, sweater, and hairstyle shift just slightly every now and then, even as the conversation does not shift to suggest a passage of time or any change to explain it. And in one of the single most disconcerting moments of the drive, Jake pressures the Young Woman into reciting a poem she has written, even though she insists she hates performing. She begins the recitation of “Bone Dog” with the line “Coming home is terrible / whether the dog licks your face or not, / whether you have a wife, / or just a wife shaped loneliness waiting for you.” It is bleak, long, and captivating. But here’s the thing: the Young Woman did not write it, real-life poet Eva H.D. did. This may seem like a small detail, but it is the first in a series of cloaked references and homages that further disrupt the lines between reality and imagination.
The couple’s arrival at the house escalates our unease. When they pull up, Mother looks out the window, but Jake insists on first taking Young Woman to the barn, where he relays an upsetting story about a pig that died in the barn which they discovered “full of maggots” (this was the point where I accepted we were in Kaufman’s version of a horror movie, but more on that later). Once they go inside the family home, a space where love and comfort are traditionally found, we descend further into destabilization, something Kaufman achieves primarily through visuals. The first is a basement door straight out of Psycho (1960) with scratch marks and locks, and before long we meet the family dog, who starts shaking and continues doing so indefinitely. But it is when Mother and Father descend from upstairs that the games really begin. Just as Young Woman did in the car and continues to do in the house, Mother and Father oscillate between outfits while Jake remains the same, but they have one added shift; their ages constantly change. When we first meet Mother, she looks to be about Collette’s actual age, roughly 47 years old. But once we follow the family to the kitchen table, she is much older, and the same occurs for Father. We never go more than a few minutes without one of them changing ages, but without any recognition of this fact from Jake or Young Woman, even though their energy levels, coherency, and appearances are altered drastically from age to age. I find it more disconcerting this way, to see these characters unaffected by their time and space slippages while we viewers desperately grasp at strands of normalcy within the surreal.
Yet, there is one scene that jumps out at me as being the closest thing i’m thinking of ending things may have to a thesis statement. After eating, Young Woman wanders upstairs to explore the house, and finds Jake’s childhood room. Inside it, we find all manner of books, movies, and pop culture reference points that have been mentioned in the movie so far, or will be after this point. Young Woman picks up a copy of “Bone Dog,” which she had previously quoted. She sees a poster for Oklahoma! which features in the sequences of the movie devoted to a mysterious janitorial character. She even finds a copy of Pauline Kael’s reviews, which she proceeds to quote word for word while passing off as her own thoughts, in accent, smoking a cigarette, while she and Jake drive away from the house. I say this is a thesis statement because this room is a physical manifestation of what it is like to write a story full of references and allusions. Yet, instead of leaving these exterior points cloaked in the filmic narrative, Kaufman brings them to the forefront and forces us to reckon with how constructed his film is. There is no sweeping “Aha!” moment where all of the references line up and reveal one deeper meaning for the movie, but it does succeed in informing us viewers that there are no rules left in this filmic world. Time does not behave as we expect to, and neither does space, and neither, apparently, do the borders between what is ‘real life’ and ‘made up.’
It is in this way that I see i’m thinking of ending things as Kaufman’s version of a horror movie. The images of the aged parents, shaking dog, and a concerning number of glass pig figurines around the house do enough to set that tone, but the sum total of the experience is one of claustrophobia and a lack of control. Young Woman is adrift without a definable identity, and she is stuck in a house with a boyfriend she does not want to be with and his parents who are just as likely to laugh uncontrollably as drift off in some dementia driven haze. Kaufman turns his two main settings, that of the car and the house, into gothic traps where this Young Woman, no matter how much she tries to comfort herself in her thoughts or by talking to her dinner party hosts, cannot control even a speck of her reality. In other movies he has either directed or written such as like Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), or Synecdoche, New York (2008), Kaufman has always attacked concepts of identity and our relationships to other people with a dark and exacting approach. Yet, in each of those movies, there is some sense of reprieve from the darkness. There is none of that in i’m thinking of ending things. Kaufman spends the runtime posing questions about what it means to actually exist and be conscious, but does not offer answers. Young Woman, Jake, Mother, and Father are just as much mysteries to us at the end of the film as they are at the beginning. The sum total is a destabilization of our own senses of self as we watch, wondering how we may in fact be an assemblage of unoriginal references and borrowed identity traits that have no real control over our lives. Kaufman seems to suggest that we are all as trapped as Young Woman is in that car and that house, and if that is not pure horror I do not know what is.
In many ways, writing this review has been one of the more difficult times I can remember trying to unpack and boil down a film experience to be read over. Most of the time I try to focus on formal elements and performances to keep the plot under enough obscurity so as not to inadvertently ruin any reader’s experience of the film if they have yet to watch it. i’m thinking of ending things makes that both harder and easier. Harder in the sense that to talk about anything in this film necessitates giving broader context from no fewer than two other moments so as to make any sense of it, but easier in the way that there is no real plot to spoil. So what I’m left with is possibly some of the most direct writing about film I have managed for this publication simply because you are all privy in this piece to the process I go through attempting to puzzle out how I feel about a film, and what that is the case. Kaufman’s films have always invited self-reflexive writing, and while it is not original to note that at the end of a piece where that is all a writer has done, I find I cannot avoid it because to watch i’m thinking of ending things is to come face to face with one’s own insecurities and questions of self. Therefore if you are looking for a piece of escapist entertainment I suggest you run as quickly as you can away from this film. But, if instead you are in pursuit of a singular cinematic experience that will challenge and provoke you, consider this film as a place to start.