Review by William J. Hammon, Creator, I Actually Paid to See This blog
For more than 20 years, Charlie Kaufman has proven himself to be a virtuoso when it comes to cinematic study of the human condition and psyche. The Oscar-winning filmmaker has an unequaled ability to explore some of the most confusing and wonderful aspects of the mind and lay them bare before the world. Whether it’s a direct reflection of his own insecurities or simply going down the proverbial rabbit hole of asking seemingly unanswerable questions about memory and personality, Kaufman provides a degree of wit, imagination, and an affinity for the “warts and all” honesty and beauty of humanity that few others can even approach. Go down the list: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa. There isn’t anything short of a masterpiece in his entire career.
With his latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, that streak of magnum opuses continues at a dazzling, wondrous pace.
Told mostly through internal monologue and shifting perspective, the crux of the film focuses on a young couple going on a one-day road trip to meet the boyfriend’s parents for the first time. Lucy (Jessie Buckley of Wild Rose) has misgivings about the seven-week old relationship, the title of the film being the inner admission of her feelings. She likes Jack (Jesse Plemons), but can’t really see a future with him, even though he has several positive qualities (intelligent, caring, empathetic) and even when they argue, there’s a tinge of underlying affection and compatibility that she’s not quite willing to admit.
On a snowy afternoon, Jack and Lucy drive to Jack’s family farm for the introductory dinner with his folks, and as the weather builds, the darkness sets in and things begin to go awry. At first it’s small things like a pristine swing set sitting outside a dilapidated building, but by the time we finally get to the rural destination and we see Jack’s parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette in astoundingly committed performances) swing back and forth from old to young with a turn of Lucy’s head, we are in firmly surreal territory. All the while, the narrative cuts away to an old janitor at a high school who gets dirty looks from the students, watches schmaltzy Robert Zemeckis movies, and observes rehearsals for a school production of Oklahoma! (paid off in a gorgeous, silent dance sequence late in the film). There’s clearly a connection, and it’s one fairly easy to guess, but the presentation is so masterfully done that once the reveal comes, it doesn’t feel the least bit cheap.
For the most part, the film only has four sets: The car, the high school, Jack’s family home, and an ice cream stand in the middle of nowhere. As the snowstorm intensifies, so too does Lucy’s paranoia, especially as the eerie things she sees make her question not only the linear nature of time but the very nature of her own existence. Jack’s mother has painful tinnitus that makes her laugh and scream manically as she tries desperately to show how happy she is for her son to have a girlfriend. Now, we’re predisposed to be suspicious of Toni Collette doing anything in a remote old house after watching Hereditary, but her intensity is really dialed up here. Lucy sees a picture of a young Jack and is convinced it’s actually her. Jack’s father drifts in and out of stages of dementia. Lucy finds a book by Pauline Kael and is later able to recite one of her more scathing reviews verbatim and with dramatic emphasis. Lucy herself is referred to by so many different names and the origin of her meeting Jack retold so many different ways that she quickly finds herself in existential panic.
But through it all, there’s a pervading sense of loneliness that Kaufman nails perfectly. Sometimes it’s purely thematic and delivered through dialogue. Other times it’s in the clever placement of props, including a badge Jack won in school for “Diligence,” taken as an acknowledgement of effort despite a failing result. It’s a poignant symbol of melancholy and the sophist nature of many well-meaning people who never realize their full potential.
The film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, an artistic choice that’s yielded some pretty great results in recent years. In First Reformed, it was used to illustrate the straight-laced, boxed-in routines of the minister played by Ethan Hawke. Earlier this year, First Cow used the frame to create an intimacy between the lead actors and their environment. Here, the tight frame is another symbol of claustrophobia. Lucy begins the film feeling trapped by her relationship with Jack, despite all the good things about him. As the film wears on, and the shots tighten, the walls figuratively close in around her, isolating her into this disjointed loop of memory and image from which she cannot escape. She can be locked out (figuratively and literally in some scenes), but she can’t leave of her own volition. The boundaries of her world are literally defined by Jack’s presence.
As previously noted, Charlie Kaufman has a unique talent in depicting the human mind. Eternal Sunshine explored the nature of memory and how much control we have over our own nature. Anomalisa showed us the extreme loneliness of mundanity. Adaptation is arguably the greatest depiction of personal obsession and insecurity ever put to celluloid. Here, Kaufman treads new yet familiar ground, giving us insight into the infinite “what if” moments of our lives, how much we can revise and idealize our personal histories, and how our intrinsic flaws may doom us to misery no matter how hard we try. One of the main metaphors of the film, no matter what we do, some of us end up like a pig covered in maggots, plodding along while the world eats us alive. It’s grotesque and tragic, but as long as the mind endures, there is beauty and meaning in it.