I haven’t watched a weird movie in a while and I certainly haven’t watched one as weird as I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) in a long time. Touted as a psychological horror film (something I did not know before watching it), I assumed this off-beat and purposely dense work was some kind of black comedy. In some ways it is; I laughed out loud at certain points along the way despite being completely bemused as to what was actually happening. It is incredibly difficult to pigeon-hole or correctly categorise this film, and one gets the impression that this was the ultimate goal of the filmmaker.
Charlie Kaufman has always been synonymous with incredibly eccentric material. One only has to look at films like Being John Malkovic (1999) or Adaptation (2002) to realise that this particular writer’s talents are informed by the abstract, the surreal and mores the case, the neurotic. His material often attempts to explore the anxious, the obsessive and the misunderstood. It is perhaps this misunderstanding that he clings to most and has in fact displayed proudly as a kind of badge of honour or calling card, if you will. No doubt, Kaufman loves to revel in the esoteric grammar of the subliminal pysche and via alienation and subjective interpretation, lead us up the garden path of his own cyptic imaginings only to arrive at a place much more confusing than the point at which we set out.
The premise is simple enough, a young woman (played by Jessie Buckley) accompanies her boyfriend Jake (played by Jesse Plemons) on a road trip to visit his parents whom she will be meeting for the first time. Beyond this, there is no ubiquitous narrative. We are instead pulled in to a very strange collection of scenes that get more and more bewildering and disconcerting as things progress. Perhaps progress is the wrong word. Digress would be just as apt. Anyway, the opening twenty minutes or so are spent in the car with the two principle characters as we get to know them, even being made privvy to the inner most thoughts of the young woman, who we discover, like the title regales, is thinking of ending things.
As Jake does his best to make conversation and sound as interesting and interested as possible, we hear the inner most thoughts of the young woman as she muses her desire to end the relationship and reveals her opinions about Jake, their brief history together and the dread she feels about their plans to meet his folks. This car journey lasts for quite some time, with the snowy exterior only momentarily revealing a rural landscape that otherwise encases the car in a blizzard, beyond which we cannot see what lies ahead. In classic Kaufman style, the awkward and sober dialogue continues to the point of absurdity just as the couple arrive at Jake’s parent’s house. Here we are spared any further maladroit discourse between this seemingly mismatched characters.
This is where the film really starts to put its straight jacket on. The parents (played by David Thewlis and Toni Collette) are a comedic pair of oddballs that take more than a moment to appear once the young couple enter the house. When they do finally show up the dynamic between all the characters treads a fine line between what one might expect at such a meeting as well as what one might expect from the Bohemian pages of a Franz Kafka novel. There’s a sheepdog that wont stop shaking and several instances in which all the characters except the young woman disappear without as much as a by your leave. The old horror trope of “don’t go into the basement” is employed along with an almost Kubrick-ian distortion of time and space as we (try to) follow the thread of what is happening.
While all this has been going on we are also intemitently exposed to several seemingly disconnected scenes which follow an elderly janitor at a high school. We witness him go about his business cleaning the hallways, eating his lunch and watching the students perform a play. In one of these scenes the janitor is watching a strange film on the TV in the cafeteria. A strange film within a strange film. The movie he is watching ends and the first title card reveals ‘Directed by Robert Zemeckis’. As my German teacher used to say back in the day, “Interesting… but stupid!”. So almost an hour into this heady concoction and not yet halfway home, there is obviosuly a connection between the young couple, Jake’s parents and the old janitor… but at this stage it’s anyone’s guess.
With the blizzard outside causing distress to Buckley’s young woman, she beseeches Jake to take her home as she has work that needs attention and wants to get back before they are cut off by bad weather. But something is wrong here, something is very very wrong. The ages of the parents are in constant flux, in some scenes appearing to be middle-aged, then very elderly and then almost youthful. The dog is still shaking and the seemingly endless staircase acts as a further descent into an increasingly insane set of circumstances. By the halfway point I was completely at a loss, but having travelled this far with these incredibly kooky characters, I was sufficiently intrigued enough to see it through and hopefully gain an insight into what the hell was going on in this film.
The couple eventually manage to leave the parental home and head back into the blizzard in the car. So begins another lengthy car scene in which we witness a vehement rant from the young woman who almost takes on a different persona when talking about cinema. At this point, my ears pricked up and I began to question the subtext even further, all the time wary that I was most likely falling into a trap. The conversation becomes extremely heady and with mentions of David Foster Wallace, the title of this film suddenly began to take on another meaning. The two weary travellers stop at an isolated ice cream palour and the David Lynch vibe-dial is rampted up to 11 as we witness an exchange between the young woman and the girl that serves her. All this happens as Jake distances himself from the counter as two of the other ice cream parlour workers look on, almost appearing to mock him with their inaudible giggling and chatter.
At this point I started to feel like we were in fact inside someone else’s thoughts or dreams and everything thus far witnessed was more likely something to do with the high school janitor rather than the characters we have been travelling with. As to what the connection was, I still hadn’t a single clue. The couple eventually return to the car with their ice cream and continue their journey, only to end up pulling up outside a building, which Jake says was his former high school. After briefly arguing, the two make up in the film’s first tender moment and share a kiss of reconciliation which is immediately broken off when we suddenly see the janitor character peering through what looks like a glory hole. Jake suddenly regales from the kiss and exits the car leaving Buckley alone and even more desperate to get home. She is left there for some time before she decides to go looking for Jake inside the school.
By now the film has taken on a more ominous forshadowing and the cold halls of the high school eventually bring our heroine in direct contact with the mysterious janitor. After a brief and awkward exchange, they part and the young woman continues to search for Jake. Suddenly, when faced with one another, their characters are inhabited by two dancers who proceed to perform a intrepetitve ballet through the hallways, eventually being joined by a dancer as the janitor who imposes himself between them and ends up stabbing Jake to death in a snow covered gymnasium. Pretty weird, huh? Well, the best is yet to come. We are then treated to a completely bemusing scene in which Jake is on stage with a theatrical backdrop which includes a version of his childhood bedroom and an old house in front of which his elderly mother sits in a rocking chair, looking on proudly as her son performs one of his favourite songs from the musical Oklahoma before a packed audience that includes Buckley’s young woman, his father as well as the ice cream parlour girls. There is a strange Citizen Kane vibe about this scene and the film ends as Jake’s performance concludes, to rappturous applause from the audience.
What. The. Hell? To be honest, as with most interesting films, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Being a Charlie Kaufman film, my mind was open to endless possibilities. Despite walking away reeling from the G-force inducing spins that I’m Thinking of Ending Things invokes, I must say I was impressed. It is not very often that films like this are funded and have the chance to see the light of day, even if that daylight turns out to be moonlight beaming out from a blanket of darkness. Was it about suicide? Homicide? The end of a relationship? All of these things? Most probably. It’s hard to know what to think after seeing this film and I only regret not watching it with other people as I imagine the conversations it would produce would reveal some extremely interesting thoughts and ideas. This being said, I would certainly recommend it to some of my cinephile friends who have not yet had chance to view it, with great anticipation as to what they will make of it.
This is not a film for those who are in no way interested in anything intellectual. This movie unashamedly reveals a rich, high-minded and scholarly seam that will fly way above the heads of even the most astute audiences. The references are various and each carry their own weight of influence over a work that is purposely riddled with subtext and semiotics. I was completely befuddled by it and would have to watch it a number of times in order to glean something meaningful from all of the allusions and indicators that are hidden within. Now knowing it is listed as a psychological horror, I can make a few educated guesses as to who these people were or are supposed to be, but I’m not 100% confident in any opinion I could conjure up without further reading and re-watching this completely unique film.
The performances are all solid, with a fantastic turn from Toni Collette as Jake’s mother. Her jittery portrayal expertly meanders between hilarity and insanity whilst maintaining a genuinely caring and motherly exterior that one cannot help but feel some compassion for, given the outlandish setting she is presented within. Buckley and Plemons are also excellent in their roles, the former in particular carries the weight of the discombobulated narrative with sufficient experience that may have been beyond the reach of some of her peers. Thewlis is always good and is especially well placed in a work of this kind, where a little bit of lascivious creepiness goes a long way.
There’s no doubt Kaufman is a mad genius and god only knows what he will dream up next. He is perhaps the closest thing that this generation has to filmmakers like Jodorowsky or Lynch and we should celebrate the fact that a platform such as Netflix is confident enough to invest in projects like this, knowing full well that most people who see it will not know what it is they have just watched and experienced. After all, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
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