Review by James McCleary
In a year as violently unprecedented as 2020, it is frankly absurd to note the number of films that, seemingly out of sheer coincidence, have proven to mirror the ideas, trends and imagery of this historic pandemic. Tenet (Christopher Nolan, 2020) frames its protagonists as immobile and mask-clad, trapped within a world suffering from apocalyptic regression, while The New Mutants (Josh Boone, 2020), filmed all the way back in 2017, traps its cast of super-humans within the invisible walls of an institution, suffocating their abilities for their own prescribed safety.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020) takes these inexplicably familiar parallels to new heights however, constructing over its lengthy runtime an exhausting, suffocating quarantine nightmare that will likely hit a bit too close to home for some. Based on a synonymous short story written by Iain Reid in 2016, the film uses the framing device of an extended conversation between Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley), whose name endures frequent changes as the narrative reveals more of its secrets, as they travel along an icy road to meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, both doing their gamely best to twist Meet the Parents (Jay Roach, 2000) into something abhorrently grotesque).
The film is first and foremost a showcase for its four outgoing, off-beat stars (there is a reason why three of the four leads have starred in seasons of Fargo), essentially taking the form of a series of short plays of roughly thirty minutes a piece rather than anything more narratively conventional, and allowing them to feed off of one another’s eccentricities. Collette, Plemons and especially Thewlis are all terrific in their respective roles, but it is unmistakably Buckley who steals every scene for herself, playing an intelligent woman amongst animals who, with every beat, line and inflection, gradually unravels and descends into claustrophobic madness at their mercy.
That is not to say that Kaufman does anything but his best work from the relative comfort of his director’s chair however, with his most noteworthy achievement being the intricate, surgical skill with which he blocks his actors within these theatrical set-pieces, refusing to let so much as a single shot go to waste without revealing something unspoken about one, two or all of his key players. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is without question a horror film at its core, but rather than ever frighten his audience with tricks or bangs, Kaufman simply recognises the inherent terror of lockdown without hope of escape, and emphasises that claustrophobia with every lingering frame and sudden cut. The film’s cast are literally and figuratively trapped in one another’s company, clinging only to the faintest, most inconceivable dreams of escape. This is an upsetting, gruelling film at the best of times; a far cry from the more lyrical absurdism of Kaufman’s earlier works, but the worldly conditions surrounding its release only serve to amplify the horror.
This is an upsetting, gruelling film at the best of times; a far cry from the more lyrical absurdism of Kaufman’s earlier works.
The ending is likely to polarise viewers, straying a delicate line between empowering and criticising the toxic male perspective at its core without ever taking a definitive stance, which is all the more troubling upon learning that Kaufman’s script strays considerably from the source material. It is clear that the film has no interest in offering any sort of relief for the traumas inflicted on his audience, most of whom are likely already familiar with the pains explored in his film. It is in many regards an endurance test, turning masterful actors into torturers wielding black comedy and misogynistic condescension as their weapons of choice, and mileage will vary on whether the melancholic ending can justify the preceding two hours and thirteen minutes spent submerged in this hellish mirror-realm. That being, said, there is no question as to the impressive talent and precision with which I’m Thinking of Ending Things was crafted. This is easily one of the year’s most fascinating films, in no small part due to its impossible prescience, and for those with the stomachs for its distressing, starkly-real capacity to reflect our modern condition, I would argue that, love it or hate it, this is an experiment worth your curiosity. What else are you gonna do?
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available on Netflix now.