Sunday, September 6, 2020


Charlie Kaufman’s exhilarating and exasperating I’m Thinking of Ending Things begins with a sustained sequence of skin-crawling social discomfort, and it only gets worse from there. It’s a brilliant nightmare. The film conjures a psychologically claustrophobic vice grip and proceeds to send it in twists, twists, twists. With each moment it tightens, almost unendurably, as the tension grows. The emotions are hyper-focused, but the details start slipping. At first it’s two people in a car, a long snowy trip. She (Jessie Buckley) tells us in voice over that she’s thinking of ending things. Not a great start. He (Jesse Plemons) is her boyfriend. They’re driving to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their far-off farmhouse. It’ll be her first time. So that is understandably tense. It’s worse when they get there—right at sunset, eerily quiet, snow threatening to turn into a blizzard, animals dead by the barn. Life’s hard on a farm, he says. Then there are the parents: awkward, nervous, needling, full of ticks, both over-accommodating and passive aggressive. It’s all a bit much. And this is before the young woman’s name starts casually changing, and then everyone seems much older all of a sudden, and how much time has passed? And wait, wasn’t she a poet? Or a painter? Or is that a physicist or gerontologist or cinephile? The longer we stay in this house, the cuts grow disjunction between details—a dog here, then there, then…where? Does it seem that the living room is also a hospital room, at the same time? Lukaz Zal’s chilly camerawork and Robert Frazen’s sharp editing are hyper-focused on Molly Hughes’ precise production design — every kitschy prop placed just so — but slips, elides. It’s like one of those nightmares where you’re in a familiar place that’s simultaneously unfamiliar.

It makes perfect sense, except when it doesn’t. It’s strange, except when it isn’t. In typical Kaufman fashion — screenwriter of Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s clever reality-bending wiliness, and writer-director of the dizzyingly existential Synecdoche, New York — the film is a construct meant to jolt us into contemplation, making its rabbit-hole philosophical rumination vivid, tactile. The longer it goes on, the more we realize we’re trapped with these people, straining to figure them out, squinting to reconcile the slow drip of strange details, stylistic flourishes, strange in-jokes, dazzling monologues, creepy Lynchian asides, long dark roads to nowhere, Oklahoma!, Pauline Kael, horror movies, snow tires, milkshakes, A Beautiful Mind, David Foster Wallace, a shuffling janitor, rapidly aging parents, mental slippage, enervating couples’ arguments, stilted silences, and an animated pig. In the end it’s about the inevitability of age, decay, and death, the uncertainty of life, the strange dysfunctions we pass on to those around us, and the sad slow process of realizing we can’t ever really know anyone. The road there is obsessively detailed, the plot at once baroque and skeletal, the performances ice-pick perfect and tightrope dazzling, while the emotions get razored into the fabric of reality itself, leaving all frayed. And somehow the whole thing is both intuitive and inscrutable. In other words, it’s a Charlie Kaufman picture.

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