The young woman played by Jessie Buckley in I’m Thinking of Ending Things is credited only as that — the Young Woman — though she’s referred to by a series of names that shift with the film’s unsteady reality. She’s Lucy, Louisa, Lucia, and, at one point, Ames (Short for Amy? she wonders in voice-over). Her clothes morph too, coat and sweater changing colors from shot to shot, a pearl necklace appearing and then vanishing. The Young Woman is studying virology or gerontology or cinema, or actually she’s a poet or a painter. She’s smart, is the point, smart about the things her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), also happens to feel smart about himself — the contents of the bookcase in his childhood bedroom line up perfectly with everything the two talk about. And other details give us cause to wonder how real the Young Woman is meant to be — chief among them that she’s a character in a movie from Charlie Kaufman, writer of Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, director of Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa.
Kaufman is an often brilliant, sometimes exasperating filmmaker with unstoppable compulsions toward metafiction, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no different in that regard. It starts off rooted in the grinding mundanity of winter-gray roadsides as the Young Woman drives with Jake to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) for the first time, though she’s already considering breaking off their six- or seven-week relationship. But the film becomes spongier and stranger as it goes along, and as the Young Woman’s edges get fuzzier, her backstory blurs into Jake’s. Yet if she is a fantasy, she’s an impressively perverse one — a fantasy who has control of the film’s perspective and who surveys her presumed creator with the waning enthusiasm of someone trying to convince themselves they’re not actually repelled by the person they’re with. Early on, the camera lingers on a smudge of toothpaste at the corner of Jake’s mouth until he self-consciously wipes it away. Jake’s stolid substance never seems in doubt. But then what to make of the elderly janitor, played by Guy Boyd, whose slow rounds at a high school punctuate the main story even as his connection to it remains unclear?
The novel on which I’m Thinking of Ending Things is based, by Iain Reid, offers answers that, if not clear-cut, are definitely clearer than what Kaufman opts for onscreen. He has flensed away the original ending in favor of something more ambiguous and expansive, a final act that incorporates a dance number, an animated pig, and the musical Oklahoma! and that viewers can pore over like tea leaves if they wish. But while I’m Thinking of Ending Things is rich with details that may slip by unnoticed on a first pass, it’s not a film that begs to be decoded — it’s more meant to be uncomfortably stewed in. To watch it is to be dropped into someone’s head and to slowly come to understand the ways in which everything onscreen refracts some aspect of that person’s past, their aspirations, their interests, their insecurities, and their own sense of self. The stuff of the film — a long afternoon drive in the snow, an awkward evening in the farmhouse where Jake grew up, and a return trip in the dark with increasingly unsettling detours — coheres into a self-portrait of someone who can barely bring themselves to be in the frame.
Over dinner, the Young Woman talks art with Jake’s parents. She’s a painter in this moment, and the parents are being different sorts of embarrassing — the mother overeager, the father grumpily populist in his decrees about modernism. The film is carried by its remarkable and sometimes playful performances, in particular from Collette, whose twitchy maternal figure can feel even more unsettling than the one she played in Hereditary, and from Buckley, who miraculously navigates her way around her character’s slipperiness. The Young Woman’s trying to please, so she explains that she specializes in landscapes, which she tries to imbue with a sense of interiority conveying what she felt at the time she painted them. But the father doesn’t have any patience for this sort of subtext. “How can a picture of a field be sad without a sad person looking sad in the field?” he asks, refusing her requests that he think of himself as the person looking.
It’s a rejection that could just as well be applied to the impressive but airless movie he’s appearing in. Which is by design — just about any critiques that may occur to you about I’m Thinking of Ending Things Kaufman reveals himself to have thought of already and acknowledged. It’s a tendency that mirrors those of its (arguable) main character, who is so in need of controlling everything and demonstrating that he already knows his own faults that he has locked himself into a miserable, defensive solitude. There may be no one better than Kaufman at chronicling the inner lives of a particular type of unhappy man who wallows in his own neuroses and thwarted ambitions and whose ability to recognize his own self-defeating tendencies doesn’t in any way equal a capacity to free him from them. There’s a sense of personal connection: Kaufman obviously has a great deal of empathy for these characters, but he manages to avoid anointing them with unearned sympathy even as he delves into their suffocating psyches. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, that psyche becomes the whole inescapable world of the film itself, one even the Young Woman becomes frantic to get away from.
To write is to commit acts of projection — fictional characters and figures in memoir are all ultimately fragments of the author. And yet, in its constant asterisking of its own material, I’m Thinking of Ending Things feels like an artistic dead end, like the confession of someone who can only burrow deeper and deeper into himself instead of looking outward. To acknowledge the constructs of fiction may be a way of pointing out its inherent artifice, but it’s also a means of avoiding the exposure that comes with allowing those fictional creations to stand (or fail) on their own. And to constantly call attention to one’s own shortcomings and deficiencies of vision may look like vulnerability in the short run — but when you pull back, it can also look like another way of endlessly talking about yourself.
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