Living Above Death: I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020)

Some thoughts on the new brain scrambler from Charlie Kaufman

My apologies for the two-week gap between posts. The busy season at work has begun as planning for the San Diego Asian Film Festival kicks into gear. I’ve been learning the ins and outs of online streaming protocols and Q&A platform development instead of focusing on personal writing projects.

That being said, I’m excited to finally sit down and decompress my thoughts on the newest film by writer/director Charlie Kaufman entitled I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which was recently released on Netflix. Known for this reflexive and inventive screenplays for Being John Malkovitch (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Kaufman has cornered the market on melancholy deep dives into the tortured subconscious. Each of these scripts challenged Hollywood’s traditional methods of screenwriting; they are elliptical, personal, and incredibly funny, and undermine the very notion that there are narrative rules to be followed.

Both of Kaufman’s previous directorial efforts also share an affinity for silent suffering characters who are constantly trying to differentiate what is real from the imagined. In the unclassifiably dense Synecdoche, New York (2008), a tortured artist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) obsessed with death embarks on a two-decade journey to stage a massive theater production. The strangely affecting stop-motion character study Anamolisa (2015) is equally concerned with how our perception of things can fuel extreme isolation and uncertainty.

While those films positioned men as the central figures of discontent, I’m Thinking of Ending Things unfolds (I think) from the perspective of a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who’s referred to by several different names throughout. Be it Lucy or Louisa or Lucia, this character stands in for Kaufman’s doubt-riddled and manic persona whose brain seems to be churning out thoughts and ideas at an inconceivable pace. As he’s done with previous scripts, Kaufman employs heavy use of rambling voice-over to convey the woman’s volatile stream of consciousness.

“I’m thinking of ending things,” she repeats in her head during conversation gaps with her new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). He’s driving them into rural America for a homecooked dinner with his parents. The road trip marks the beginning of a major new phase in their relationship, but Lucy or Louisa or Lucia seems resistant to envision any kind of future with Jake. For nearly 20 mins of screentime, we get to see why this might be the case. The conversation is equal parts forced and lived in, confrontational at times, and at others eerily serene. Both of these characters are very intelligent, but they seem to have little ability to read the other’s intentions.

Everything from Wordsworth to physics and biology is brought up during their long drive, and Kaufman (adapting Ian Reid’s novel) imbues the sequence with an unmistakable sense of suffocation, the slow kind that anyone who’s been stuck in an inoffensively banal relationship could immediately understand. In discussing certain species of animals that sacrifice themselves for the group, Jake resolutely says, “Not everything wants to live.”

As Jake careens down a country road in snowy weather, his words are a reminder that things can turn from bad to worse to weird on a dime. And this being a Charlie Kaufman film, they most certainly do. Finally arriving at Jake’s childhood home, a modest farmhouse emanating modest serial killer vibes, the couple awkwardly traverses the barren perimeter before entering. This gives Jake enough time to show Lucy or Louisa or Lucia the barn where he reminisces about two pigs who were slowly eaten alive by maggots. Life on the farm is hard, but life inside the mind of a farmhand seems to be harder.

When the characters finally brave the cozy menacing interiors and meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis both being lovingly insane), I’m Thinking of Ending Things becomes even more oppressive. Kaufman dances around the gripping subtext that defines Jake’s relationship with his parents, only hinting at the rage and resentment he obviously feels towards them in his grimacing grins and juvenile throws of embarrassment. We see things from the guest’s perspective, which is in many ways even more torturous. Kaufman has placed us all squarely in a prison cell with three lifers who have somehow survived the misery of purgatory for decades.

This is when the film turns into a kind of brain scrambler that demands a lot from the viewer. Temporality and logic begin to bend and fold to reveal varying timelines that cross paths like ships in the night. Whispers and echoes and creaks fill the house, providing a Greek Chorus to Lucy or Louisa or Lucia’s incessant internal monologue.

There’s a singularly terrifying quality to Kaufman’s film in the way that it restricts the viewer from fully understanding what’s off-screen, just out of reach, and slightly beyond earshot. This creates a permeating, mysterious feeling that defines each sequence, especially those that take place as the couple begins their drive home to the city. Craving sweets, Jake decides to stop an all-night ice cream parlor named Tulsey Town whose mascot is a diabolical clown. Afterward, he inexplicably decides to take his girlfriend for a tour of his hometown high school.

Going into any more specifics would ruin the experience of Kaufman’s strange, heady film, but just know that along the way these characters quote Pauline Kael’s pan of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), the merits of musicals like Oklahoma!, and the agonizing process of growing old, lonely and afraid. The relentless blizzard wind whipping up outside the car seems friendlier by comparison. Every word is a dare, every glare is a word left unsaid.

I was exhausted with I’m Thinking of Ending Things by the time it reaches a climax so spacey and lucid that all one can do is tip your cap to Kaufman for trying to go there. Still, while the viewing experience itself was taxing, it’s a film I haven’t been able to shake since. The primary reason being that there are very few examples of modern American cinema that explore topics like death and suicide with such expansive curiosity.

Through his character’s ever-distrusting eyes, we see the possibility that one can live above death, looking at it with horrifying amazement, similar to someone looking down at the earth from an airplane 35,000 ft in the air. How is this possible? How am I here? Except Jake and Lucy or Louisa or Lucia are close, really close, tipping their toes into the unexplainable in ways that continue to confound. And being that close means breaking down the barriers of perspective and narrative and time. Somehow in all that chaos, Kaufman finds peace.

Until next time,

GHJ

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