I’m Thinking of Ending Things is another trip into the mind of the pathetic man, but Charlie Kaufman finally finds universality in one man’s fantasy.
Mild spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things below.
You can mark the exact point at which one-time wunderkind Charlie Kaufman went from being a critic’s darling to a difficult curio: when he started directing his own work. He spent the first years of his career as one of the few avant-garde writers accepted by the mainstream, collecting a few Oscar nods for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Then he started making his own work, and it got weirder. A lot weirder. Though brilliant, Synecdoche, New York is one of the least accessible films I can imagine by a mainstream director. Anomalisa, a stop-motion film made for adults, got great reviews and an Oscar nomination. His latest, made for Netflix, and adapted from a critically acclaimed novel of the same name, is about as accessible as Alcatraz.
A plot synopsis is barely helpful here, but for posterity: Jake (an unnerving Jesse Plemons) takes his girlfriend, Louisa (Jessie Buckley), to see his parents (Toni Colette and David Thewlis), after only a few weeks of dating. They’re classic millennials: quick witted, quicker talking but emotionally stagnant. The film opens with an internal monologue from Louisa where she considers ending things, which Jake can somehow hear. To describe the film from there would be to spoil many of its pleasures, but Kaufman drives morosely, at full speed, into dream logic, and if you know anything about Kaufman’s previous work, you will have clued into the fact that this film isn’t just about a doomed relationship. (Also, if you’re a fan of Ian Reid’s novel, my above synopsis is closer to it than Kaufman’s film is. Be aware.)
Kaufman’s canvas, as it has been for his entire career, is the pathetic man – although all his films have been a deconstruction of how truly pathetic the (white, straight) man can be, usually told through the mouthpiece of a brilliant woman. This isn’t the director’s deepest dive into that territory – arguably Synecdoche, New York, went deeper into the psyche of an artist whose monumental talent was equal to his monumental shittiness – but it’s the first time that Kaufman has tried to use the canvas of the pathetic man to say something wider about the rest of us.
It becomes clear, fairly early on, that Louisa is not Louisa at all; she, and the rest of the characters in the film, are psychological constructs of Jake’s. The characters are presented how he sees them, or most importantly, as he wants them to be. Where I’m Thinking of Ending Things also differs from the rest of Kaufman’s work is that Jake is not the audience window, or even the central character. The fantasy that Jessie Buckley plays is.
Buckley, whose career has come a long way since being the runner-up on British reality show I’ll Do Anything, has another one of the tightrope-thin roles that Kaufman usually writes for women, which women tend to slam-dunk (see: Kate Winslet, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton). This has to be one of the most difficult roles of Buckley’s career, and this would be true of many actors’ careers. Not only does she have to play a real woman, she has to play a literal embodiment of multiple fantasies, and switch between those fantasies at a moment’s notice. Even more impressively, she has to bring depth to the character as she, across many personalities, begins to realise she’s part of someone else’s psychological reality. It’s the kind of performance that could be navel-gazing and cerebral, but Buckley doesn’t just get the fantasy, she’s so vibrant that she makes us understand why people have fantasies at all. They’re just better.
Kaufman’s work is very much a litmus test for his audiences. His earlier films had the voices and the talents of other people amplifying the stories that he wanted to tell, or more accurately, sanding off some of the edges. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is his most uncompromising film yet. Although it has the very clear, horror-tinged cinematography of Lukasz Zal (Cold War), this is the product of one very specific man whose favourite subject is, despite the litany of obtuse literary references, himself. There’s even a shot that is a very obvious reference to the famous poster image from his most film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Whether you find value in that depends on what you think you have to learn from an impressive but very much inwardly facing man. If you, not unfairly, roll your eyes at the idea of another man’s internal life being examined using a woman, be she actress or character, as a tool, you’ll find little to enjoy here. Kaufman’s immense talent can’t make up for the fact that his lens wants to investigate something that many of us are well acquainted with. Many of us, across the spectrum of intersectionality, know how pathetic men can be. We don’t need to know why.
If that doesn’t turn you off, then there’s profundity to be found in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Fantasy is just not the realm of pathetic men – we’re all guilty of a little bit of projection here and there, trying to see ourselves and something we need in others. The most telling line in the film, in its thrilling, Lynchian conclusion, gets down to Kaufman’s point in a few simple words:
“I haven’t seen anyone. Except you. I see you.”
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to watch on Netflix now.
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