I’m Thinking of ending things

Netflix is really pushing I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the enigmatic film directed by Charlie Kaufman, based on a book by Iain Reid. This movie isn’t typical for Netflix, which tends more towards the mainstream while Charlie Kaufman is known for experimental indie efforts such as Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and the extremely challenging Synecdoche, New York. I’m Thinking of Ending Things approaches Synecdoche in terms of obscurity and the mind games it plays on the audience. Unlike that bizarre film, however, you don’t realize what you’re in for until the last half hour or so.

Your reaction to this film will tend to fall into one of two categories. Either you’ll think it’s a brilliant, original, and mind-bending work of art or you’ll dismiss it as a gimmicky movie that tries too hard to be clever. My reaction was somewhere in the middle. It is clever and mind-bending but it also relies on a fairly frustrating and not all that original gimmick.

I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible. The interesting thing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things is that, unlike most obscure and intellectually challenging films or TV shows (for example, Twin Peaks or anything by David Lynch), Charlie Kaufman has actually explained what this film means, or at least the gist of it. You can read his comments in an interview with Indie Wire. I suggest watching it first. This is sort of refreshing. I mean, there’s a long tradition, which Lynch exemplifies, of telling viewers to make what they will of the film. Kaufman is rare in actually solving the mystery.

I‘m Thinking of Ending Things is ostensibly about a couple, Lucy, though her actual name is a matter of contention, which is a clue about what kind of film this is (Jessie Buckley) and Jake (Jesse Plemons) who are driving through a snowstorm to visit Jake’s parents, who live in a remote farmhouse. In the beginning, Lucy narrates, expressing her intention to end things with Jake for fairly vague reasons (i.e. the relationship isn’t “going anywhere”).

From the start, we notice that everyone is, well, strange. Jake has an ominously quiet personality (exacerbated if you’ve seen other parts Plemons has played on shows like Fargo and Breaking Bad) while Lucy seems to be fragmented and unsure of who she is. If you pay attention, you’ll notice odd discrepancies. For example, when they arrive at the farmhouse, she says it reminds her of where she grew up. Yet, less than five minutes later, she claims she grew up in an apartment.

Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) take the weirdness to a new level with their awkward giggling fits. More striking is that their ages morph from one scene to the next. At this point, we realize that things aren’t merely odd but downright surreal. From there, it only gets stranger.

In the background is a school janitor (Guy Boyd) who appears to be observing and/or thinking about these characters, though his connection to them remains obscure.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a film you really need to study rather than just watch. The best approach would be to see the film then read some reviews, especially ones that contain Kaufman’s revelations. Then see it again. To be honest, I’ve only seen it once and I don’t think I’ll watch it again. I mostly enjoyed it but I just wasn’t that impressed with the contrivance. At around 2 hours and 15 minutes, it’s a long stretch.

I have a certain ambivalence about films or novels where the creator is playing with your mind and manipulating your expectations. I’m probably giving a bit away here, but I’ll say that if you think Fight Club was one of the most brilliant novels/films ever, you might love this. On the other hand, there’s also the problem, particular to modern media-crazy society, of getting jaded with devices that may seem clever at first but then appear derivative.

The idea of art being derivative is more of an issue the more alternative or arty you get. With a conventional thriller, rom-com, or a heist movie, for example, you accept that you’re dealing with a genre and have certain expectations. With more experimental works, however, the stakes are higher and the recollection that you’ve seen it all before is a harsher criticism. That may be because an experimental approach sacrifices certain qualities such as accessibility and comfort.

We tolerate the contrivances of a genre film as long as it offers at least something original. Yet when your expectations are shattered, you want it done in a way that’s not just clever but unique. For me, the film wasn’t quite brilliant enough to justify all the mystery. At the risk of sounding prosaic, I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t turn out to be something more conventional, such as that Jake and his parents were Satanists who fed guests to the farm animals. But that’s not really what Charlie Kaufman does.

I try not to be the kind of reviewer who says that you “should” or “shouldn’t” see a film. In regard to I’m Thinking of Ending Things, if you’re even remotely interested in offbeat and intellectually challenging films, you should definitely watch it and make up your own mind. On the other hand, if you prefer straightforward plots where the characters’ very identity or existence aren’t in doubt, you may want to skip this one.

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