I’m Thinking of Ending Things: Kaufman at his most abstract yet
Image Courtesy of TV Guide
By Asher Melville
Netflix’s newest foray into the avant-garde opens on slow pans over an assortment of drab floral patterns with a voiceover that tells us the film’s title: “I’m thinking of ending things.” This is followed by a short spiel about relationships before the camera finds our protagonist, Young Woman, as she gets in the passenger seat of her boyfriend Jake’s car. We then join the pair in the car for the better part of twenty minutes. Twenty minutes of uninterrupted dialogue vaguely alluding to the backgrounds of the couple and establishing their characters before a sudden, almost mid-sentence cut to a house through the car window signals their arrival. This jarring pacing acts as a microcosm to the film as a whole and a litmus test of how much you’ll get out of it.
The narrative centres around the couple’s visit to Jake’s parents’ house and Young Woman’s immersion into the family. Each performance in the film is excellent and gives each actor a lot to do emotionally. Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons both exhibit a diverse and often subtle performance and Toni Collette’s cackling caricature of a performance was an entertaining watch, but the highlight for me was watching David Thlewis go full weirdo as the father. He nails what one would expect of a father-in-law figure but dials it way up while sprinkling in his own grotesque freakishness, reminiscent of his Fargo character. Despite the lack of jokes in the script, he managed to make each line a joy, be it the soft yet deliberate delivery of “fucking” which he seems to take slight relish in repeating an uncomfortable amount to Young Woman, or the accusatory look of “well?” that he levies at her after every nonsensical interrogative from his wife. Coupled with the horror elements, I am reminded of Shyamalan’s ‘The Visit’, if it had succeeded in its comedy-horror premise.
Horror is mostly provided through temporal and spatial peculiarity, as time itself is a central conceit of the film; writer/director Charlie Kaufman opts to drop the novel’s overt horror tropes in favour of more abstract chills, such as a dog shaking off for an unnatural amount of time. The second half of the film shifts focus somewhat. It starts to drift away from the narrative, and Kaufman starts to do that thing he likes to do where his characters will go into deep-dives about esoteric texts and topics that most audience members won't know - in this case 1974's 'A Woman Under the Influence'. I'm sure there's some intertextual significance in fixating on this film for 5-10 minutes, but I'm not going to watch it just to find out.
What was a move away from narrative becomes a complete disregard for it in the last half hour, and around this point I had to give up gaining a literal interpretation of the narrative, and instead spent the time trying to interpret its meaning as an art piece in itself, regardless of plot. That isn't to say there isn't a narrative resolution, just that it isn't one you're likely to get on a first watch – I certainly didn’t.
Like I said at the start, it’s not for everyone. Personally, while having to give up a literal reading was frustrating, I took pleasure in thinking about the greater significance of small details in the dialogue and mise-en-scene. Netflix tags the film as ‘cerebral,’ and they’re not wrong. The film exudes self-awareness and insecurity in equal measures – but when has a Kaufman feature not? I certainly enjoyed the ride, but I had the benefit of knowing Kaufman’s work beforehand. I doubt this is a great jumping-on point for his style and this will likely be an exercise in irritation for some viewers, but for those that know what they’re in for, this is a rewarding and engaging watch, and another gem in Kaufman’s ever-impressive filmography.