Charlie Kaufman’s latest Netflix feature, ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ talks of memory, fiction, and selfhood. With a story on the vestige of human tenderness, the film makes a renewed statement about loss and loneliness.
‘I’m thinking of ending things’, the latest Netflix feature by Charlie Kaufman, stars Jessie Buckley as Young Woman (as formally credited at the ending) and Jesse Plemons as the razor-sharp yet insecure Jake. The film is based on Iain Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name – with many liberties to the text, of course. After premiering at select theatres in late August, it was made available on Netflix in September. The plot of the film is deceptively simple – a young woman contemplates breaking up with her boyfriend – Jake – on a road trip to his parents’ remote farmhouse. On the seemingly interminable drive which takes place during a snowstorm, the couple engages in discursive, high-sounding conversations about tensile and metaphysical subjects. The young woman – initially called Lucy – seems to have plentiful misgivings about the relationship (‘It isn’t going anywhere’, ‘there’s no future) yet somehow cannot terminate it (‘People tend to stay in unhealthy relationships because it’s easier,’ she monologues.) Kaufman makes masterful use of voiceover speech – especially with Lucy – who ruefully cogitates about her relationship with Jake and makes canny observations, albeit sweepingly generalized, about human character. It is marginally hinted that Jake can almost hear her thoughts. But we can’t be sure yet. I mean, how can he?
Lucy is meeting Jake’s parents for the first time – something she marks as a ‘proverbial step’ in the relationship but concurrently feels guilt-ridden for it because she’s ‘thinking of ending things’. The tension in the plot is fueled by Lucy’s urgency to return home straight after dinner due to some work obligation. What’s work, asks Jake? Lucy tells him she has a paper due Wednesday. She seems to be a scientific scholar – and Jake has preternatural insight into his girlfriend’s very specific work. He knows exactly what she’s talking about, having no discernible credentials in the scientific field himself. Typical of Kaufman’s formulaic protagonists (chronically insecure but notably cerebral archetypes), Jake works at a school, although it’s unclear what his actual profession is. Personality-wise, he is sheepish, perceptive, a bit moody.
Along the ride, he asks Amy if she’s heard of William Wordsworth, the English Romantic poet. She says she’s not familiar and wryly adds that she’s not the ‘metaphorical-sort of gal’. Jake names a poem – ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ byWordsworth. He goes on to mention that the English poet once wrote a series of poems coincidentally addressed to a ‘beautiful, ideal’ woman named Lucy – just like her. She half-listens, bored, and says that the title of the poem ‘sounds like an entire poem’ and they ricochet to another talking point.
There is another story unfolding side by side. We follow an old man through his morning routine – he eats cereal, drinks a hot beverage, and silently regards the TV – and drives a pickup truck to a school. We find out that he’s working there as a janitor. As Jake and Amy’s story keeps unveiling, we are brought back to this silent, desolate narrative of an old, grubby janitor and his clinically empty life at the public school. He seems to have blunted himself to routine chiding of two high-school girls. Sweeping the isolated corridors and scouring the bathroom tiles, he moves like a ghost, unseen by everyone.
Back in the car, Jake asks Amy to recite one of her poems. (The viewer thinks, ‘Oh, she’s a poet now?) After initial hesitation, she relents and ardently recites a poem that starts ‘Coming home is terrible…’ for approximately a minute and a half. It seems like a dispositional incongruence for a woman who self-identifies as not ‘a metaphorical-type of gal’ to extemporaneously deliver such a long-winded poem. This is where things first started getting slippery for me. It only gets worse – or better – from here.
Upon their arrival at Jake’s parents’ house, things get much weirder. There are childhood stories of pigs being emptied out by maggots, spooky basements, and Jake’s Parents – Toni Collete (from Hereditary) and David Thewlis (Lupin from Harry Potter)- are initially – well, let’s say – solid. But as a very awkward conversation unspools at the dinner table, things start getting really creepy. The dialogue in the film is very Beckettian, especially between Jake’s parents. The heart of their arguments hemorrhage into verbal cul-de-sacs and are picked up arbitrarily once again, leading nowhere and everywhere. Lucy’s unyielding cues of ‘I need to get back’ only make the night tauter.
In the guise of plot progression, you are pushed deeper into a consuming uncertainty, a sort of uncoiling trickery, suburban hedges coming undone. Jake’s parents start aging backward and forwards into time – sometimes they are sprightly, younger versions of themselves, and other times, they are infirm and decrepit, suffering from baldness and dementia. Their physicality is radically transformed from youthful spines to hunchbacks, from young-looking manes to alopecic baldness. You start to wonder – is anything even real? What’s happening?
But nothing in this film is consistent and established. It is expertly founded upon esoteric references, periphrastic dialogue, and a labyrinthine plot with invariable signifiers. As the film recedes from any semblance of cohesion, you become more and more unsure about the existence of a plot. Lucy becomes a wisp in the snowstorm, a ghostlike apparition, denuding herself with each passing scene. At one point in the dinner scene, everyone else around the table disappears and she remains there, like a ghost, like a… memory. Watching her, you think – how lonely does a ghost feel? She tries to explain it as an ‘effect of time’, that she’s experientially interpreting time – or are we as the audience?
Lucy seems to have no fixed profession – she’s variably a scholar, waitress, poet, artist throughout the film. Her name keeps changing, too – Lucy, Louisa, Ames, Amy… We don’t know who she is. She is being habitually reinvented by someone, but who? After the dinner, Lucy wanders off to Jake’s childhood bedroom. It’s the bedroom of a starkly precocious child. Across the room, there is distinctive paraphernalia – an anthology of Pauline Kael film reviews (from which Lucy quotes verbatim on their ride back home), a Wordsworth volume, some scientific literature on quantum physics (relating to the subject of her paper), and Eva H.D.’s poems from ‘Rotten Perfect Mouth’ (which Lucy earlier recited on the car). In the out-of-bounds basement, she evens finds the art she thinks she made (it’s properly attributed to Ralph Albert Blakelock).
Then it clicks -Lucy doesn’t exist. She’s been made up. She is Jake’s idealized woman – his Wordsworth’s Lucy. She is like Frankenstein’s monster, pieced together from scraps of Jake’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. In his emblematic seclusion, he has created her. He is her. They are one and the same, extending forth from a nucleic source like sinuous sprouts of a sea-creature. In the initial scene of their arrival at the farmhouse, Amy even confuses Jake’s childhood picture with hers. But nothing is real in this film. Or unreal.
In a Kaufmanesque world, there is no definite interpretation to be had– nothing besides a solipsistic assuredness. It is a film that is rooted in radical doubt and the real meaning of the story is only waylaid by an attempt to rationalize its indeterminate elements. In an interview with IndieWire, Kaufman said, “I’m not really big on explaining what things are. I let people have their experiences, so I don’t really have expectations about what people are going to think. I really do support anybody’s interpretation.”
Kaufman is known for being the screenplay writer of many such confounding films – Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and – of course – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) which is widely heralded as his magnum opus. Kaufman’s filmography is typified by a disconcerting quality, willfully unresolved narratives, and absurdist logic.
He made his directorial debut in 2008 with ‘Synecdoche, New York’ – a film that garnered mixed reviews from critics. Since then, he has also published the book ‘Antkind’ which, of course, makes many allusions to Samuel Beckett’s work (specifically Molloy). It’s no wonder that ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ comes off as something that belongs to the Theatre of the Absurd rather than a large commercial platform like Netflix.
Thematically, this film is about loneliness (the school janitor), aging (the janitor and Jake’s parents), and self-delusion (Jake and his delusion of Young Woman) in the most obvious ways. Kaufman has always been a director of the Self. In this film, as the characters hide behind intellectualization and wry humor (the postmodern malaise), there is always a desperate attempt to get at human connection. But the characters themselves eternally divided like fact and fiction, like memory and present – spatially and temporally confined.
Kaufman has always been thematically occupied with the semantics of human memory, most overtly in his 2004 film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. This is a film about memory, too – and fiction. More specifically, how fiction shapes one’s memory. (By fiction, I just don’t mean strictly canonical literature or pop-culture references but rather the general fictions we tell ourselves and live by).
I was trying to figure out what a memory feels like.Kaufman
‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ wrote Joan Didion. Jake’s consciousness is so sternly dictated by his rigorous consumption of art that it overrides his sensory perception of the world. This is a Platonic view on art as a corruptive force, as something that diminishes one’s touch with reality, like maggots feasting on the brain. But in spite of such a denigrating treatment of the arts, Jake – or the film – still holds a desperate plea for it. He lives because of it. The film – with all its narrative inconsistencies – is the memory being erringly channeled, hastily recalled, and seductively altered with each remembrance – like a folk tale (collective memory of a people). Better yet, it’s being plainly invented – the creation of something so elaborately bizarre to detract from what you can’t change: the facts of human loneliness. The end product is something entirely bittersweet that it leaves you fluttering in the blustery weather of the film, wondering aloud: how lonely does a memory feel — one that never quite was?
Feature Image Credits: Netflix