James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.
James Clay // Film Critic
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
Say the title to Charlie Kaufman’s latest film out loud. “IM THINKING OF ENDING THINGS…” How does that statement make you feel? Probably not so good. It suggests crippling indecision, or something a bit haunting. Kaufman has made a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s more absurd humorist. The multi-faceted screenwriter/director deserves “a whole row of Oscars,” and managed to nab one for his writing work on ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND back in 2005.
The late ’90s and early aughts were the most prolific time for Kaufman; he wrote the screenplays for the Spike Jonze directed pictures BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION, each more meta than the next. To provide context for Kaufman’s work is kind of a pointless exercise, go watch some clips on Youtube, and get a feel for his wavelength. It’s dense, often super funny like a Kafka-esque nightmare of misogyny and misanthropy. Even for its flaws, Kaufman’s work always seemed like they were individual forms of self-expression. Each one an individual idea that’s demanding to be born and maybe that’s why each script he writes (or directs) is searching for growth.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS is Kaufman’s best film yet as a director (his other two are SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, and ANOMALISA) and still has about the same level of accessibility as you’d come to expect. Yet —the film based on Iain Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name— is perfectly unhinged. Borrowing and reappropriating strange little ideas like a gardener with a magic green thumb. It’ll be hard to imagine a more satisfying, intellectual film this year. Put that together with tension and a unique visual language the film becomes something more satisfying than I could have imagined.
The film starts with a young woman (Jessie Buckley) getting in the car with her boyfriend of just a few weeks Jake (Jesse Plemons) on a long snowy ride to his parents’ (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) rural farmhouse house for dinner. Her voiceover is heard throughout the film, but in the 25 minutes long opening car ride it acts like a pestering little reminder about the insecurities she has in her budding romance. “I’m thinking of ending things,” she says to herself with Jake’s reply being “what?” It’s these little moments Kaufman puts into the scenes that make the steady stream of dialogue much more palatable. We think to ourselves “Did Jake just hear that?” Prepare to question everything in the film, from the wet dog shaking itself off to the way the young woman feeds Jake chocolate cake, it’s all incredibly strange, hilarious, and disturbing.
For a good portion of the run time its the four actors ping ponging opinions about the validity of abstract art, trying to recount the night they met, the conversation takes so many turns its like a form of cerebral anarchy. Playing exceptionally well off each other the cast form a dynamic rhythm to pair with Kaufman’s dialogue.
Jake tries to flex his intelligence on physics to showoff his academic prowess but winds up feeling embarrassed by his mother’s overly joyous hysteria, and his father’s overly critical disposition. He ends up speaking meekly with clenched teeth while his girlfriend becomes more confused by what’s happening. It’s in the editing by Robert Frazen and the cinematography by Lukasz Zal that gives the film kinetic energy to place you right in the middle of the action, it’s almost alienating.
Kaufman also directs the hell out of this thing from musical numbers to lengthy shots engulfed in the snow to the work done by the actors. Jessie Buckley is front and center as the guide through the maze, while Jesse Plemons sits back seldom making eye contact all the while desperate to impress. Toni Collette is once again subverting her screen presence and completely reinventing the overbearing mother, while David Thewlis’ buttery British accent is coupled with venomous words that rivals his performance in Mike Leigh’s NAKED.
As the story unfolds it becomes obvious this isn’t just a new spin on “Meet the Parents,” its something completely unidentifiable by the end. It will undoubtedly spark a storm on film twitter with think pieces being written about little moments.
At one point Jake muses about his knowledge of David Foster Wallace which is something of a cliche among intellectual white men. This is such a cliche, it’s even cliche that Kaufman is even knowingly alluding to this cliche. In short the joke has been done before and leave it up to Kaufman to make it feel fresh again. The constant self-reflection and philosophies are not to condemn Jake’s disposition, but it sure is telling.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS isn’t all smoke, mirrors, and arthouse mystique, it’s about being insecure, constantly rerouting the choices we make, and negotiating where they could have led. Kaufman’s work is about simple feelings we have about not being good enough trying to reckon with the fact that this is all life has to offer.
It’s not really a secret there is a twist embedded in the film’s structure. It doesn’t hit with the thunder-like Shyamalan fake out it slithers into the film and keeps unspooling up until the last minute. There is not a more satisfying film in 2020 than I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS. It is a complete transportive escape into a spiral staircase of psychology, philosophy on media, and how crippling the views we have about ourselves can truly be. These ideas may not be tangible, but they are alive, in some way.
Kaufman keeps creating therefore is hopeful about life, or is he suggesting these are the lies we tell ourselves to cope. Cynical, or hopeful view the text however you please. If Charlie Kaufman is going to tell us anything it’s that self-care is important, love yourself.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS will be streaming on Netflix on September 4.