“Any idiot can write voiceover narration to explain the thoughts of a character.” That’s what Charlie Kaufman wrote, anyway, when penning the script for what many consider to be his seminal work on narrative deconstruction, Adaptation. (2002). In all fairness to Kaufman, this line is delivered by a character who’s framed as a restrictive and conservative influence on the creative process, strangleholding it into arbitrary templates of the three-act structure and carefully calculated character arcs which ultimately limit an ambitious writer — such as Kaufman — to experiment with the written form and find the best way to deliver complex themes to a mainstream audience. This is the brand Kaufman has been toting since the smash success of his first collaboration with director Spike Jonze in 1999, Being John Malkovich. Like his latest work, now behind the helm of the ship after two previous successes as a fully-fledged director, Malkovich delves into the precarious ideals of rocky relationships, shared consciousness, questions about personal identity, and gender dysphoria. The way these two films approach similar subject matters differ incredibly, but the parallels are nonetheless interesting to observe. Malkovich, praised for its absurd surrealism, placing us quite literally in the head of the quasi-famous actor from which it gets its name, takes a humor-filled adventurous approach to its dissection of the human psyche, while I’m Thinking of Ending Things purports itself to be more of a horror/thriller, while never truly pushing itself to qualify in either category. It comes close at many points, but always backs down just before it would have to manifest its disturbing truths.
“I’m thinking of ending things”, the film of the same name begins, utilizing that same style of voiceover narration Kaufman described in his earlier work, opening the door to the innermost thoughts of his leading character and the potential trappings of this often misused narrative device. Since all the main themes of Kaufman’s new film revolve around the machinations of the mind, it is of no surprise and perfectly appropriate for him to fall back on that which he so excellently skewered and examined in his most prolific work. But unlike in that case, the lack of metatextual awareness does not save him the vapid emptiness of inner monologues, literalizing the subtext and understated performances, providing expository context instead of substantial insight for the characters. So much of this film is shrouded in cerebral mystery, disguising and subverting expectations in the name of building towards something more unnerving and profound. Where the use of voiceover is typically intended to provide informative perspective to round out the audience’s understanding of a situation, Kaufman refuses to clarify anything through the technique, despite how simple and obvious the mystery becomes during key moments of revelation.
The strengths of the film come primarily from the first half, where things are kept simple and relatively straightforward while shrouding the rest in mystery. A tense, uncomfortable air permeates the film, as we are transported along with our two main characters through the cold, wintery roads of an empty Middle America setting, with only the ghosts of farmland around to see. We actually aren’t shown much of the setting at all, the first twenty minutes or so are confined entirely to the perspective of the car with only hints of an exterior setting beyond the crestfallen snow fogging up the windshields. The tension is palpable as the anguish of awkward conversation plays out between the leads, both of whom are giving superlative performances despite the shackling of the material. Jessie Buckley is the actress chosen to deliver the film’s deluge of narrative exposition, cataloging her doubts and concerns regarding the relatively weak foundations of this newly formed relationship as she joins her chosen mate on a trip to meet his parents for the first time. She is apprehensive and regretful out the gate, and he seems at least slightly uncertain as well, if not in the relationship than at least in how to carry on a conversation with his obviously dejected girlfriend. Jesse Plemons is given this secondary role, finally emerging in a more substantial part after making the rounds as a reliable character actor in a myriad of lauded productions. His role in the film evolves considerably over the course of events, but even from the beginning he takes center stage to become the dubious figure around which all questions center.
Their conversations seem to magnetically return to fixations of cultural interest, often a variety of film, poetry, musicals, and even philosophical works, most of which bear hollow remarks on the evolving dynamic of the story and lack in particular importance to their themes therein. The most common of these references come in the form of popular musical Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It is first referenced as a seemingly innocuous song that appears on the radio during their car trip but continues to surface in a disconnected context as we see flashes of a janitor cleaning an unrelated high school while a group of students practices the famous ballet sequence from the show’s first act finale. We later see this number play out in full once the two stories converge, but Oklahoma! ultimately does little to further contextualize the themes of I’m Thinking of Ending Things despite the constant insistence of its importance. So, too, does another point of reference demonstrate its vapid inclusion when the script calls for Buckley’s character to recite Pauline Kael’s review for John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974). In the case of both these examples, it does not matter if one has seen the work of reference because there is no additional context to glean from their inclusion. But still, the insistence on their significance within the film showcases a self-importance that pervades Kaufman’s work, but which he is typically able to carefully navigate without drifting into pomposity.
All the film’s notable highlights can be found in the intended destination of the story, the home of the boyfriend’s parents. Toni Collette and David Thewlis continue to add to the film’s impressive roster of performances as they amplify the tense atmosphere of the story with the mounting discomfort of the central character dynamic. This is also where the story begins to show its greater ambitions, as the house itself takes on the role of a greater metaphor and the reality of the narrative is twisted and undone. Time, space, and consciousness begin to blend, the true nature of the story begins to manifest, mostly in blunt reveals but still frustratingly masked by a needless indirection of information. At this point, the cards are on the table, but the story still chooses to act like there’s some greater puzzle to be solved, leaving behind the Freudian explorations of family and childhood traumas to a path of greater bewilderment and unneeded confusion. Unsurprisingly, the film never blatantly reveals what information is given here, instead concluding on another musical reference point and rolling the credits without satisfactorily bringing things to a logical climax, which only makes the pretense of something greater being revealed all the more frustrating.
The rest of the film compounds upon this one simple idea, continuing to confirm its clear intent through intentionally unclear means. While the performances and general atmosphere of the film, as well as the kernel of intrigue its mystery provides, make for some praiseworthy elements, the ultimate undoing of the film boils down to the insistence that there is something greater for the audience to discover buried in the confounding structure of the story. What should feel like a fascinating and complex character drama, which places us inside the mind of a conflicted and uncertain individual with layers of subversive storytelling pulling us to the edge of our seats, is ultimately a very simple concept that refuses to examine itself, and instead insists that by eschewing traditional narrative structure, and offering no definitive statement on its thematic intent, that somehow makes it a more intellectual and artistic work. Kaufman has, for more than two decades now, gotten away with walking the tightrope of pretension. Because he has belligerently insisted that his works will not adhere to traditional structures or subjects, it was not unlikely he would eventually trip. In the end, I’m Thinking of Ending Things feels like an ill-advised bluff. The cards Kaufman is holding aren’t terrible, but they’re most certainly not going to win, and instead of folding he doubles down on what is promised, hoping that that the insistence of thematic complexity will convince us it’s there.