“Is Charlie Kaufman okay?” read my first Google search immediately after finishing his latest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, for which Kaufman both directed and wrote the screenplay. What prompted my search was the fact that I’m Thinking of Ending Things was undoubtedly one of the weirdest movies I have ever seen. Between the sporadic costume and makeup changes, that hissing voice on the phone, and those last fifteen minutes in general, the film was unpredictable to say the least.
This eccentricity is to be expected, as Kaufman is well known within the cinematic world for exploring the concept of one’s sense of reality, toying with the in-betweens of real life and imagination. And this movie definitely plays with the ideas of one’s conscious and unconscious lives. Despite what at first glance may be a confusing multi-layered plot, Kaufman’s latest psychological thriller delivers a haunting story that keeps viewers pondering long after the final scenes.
Charlie Kaufman’s film adaptation of Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things tells the story of a young couple, Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley). The two travel to dinner at Jake’s parents’ house where Jake will introduce his girlfriend, whose name begins as Lucy, to his parents for the first time, and over the course of the drive, the girlfriend considers breaking up with him, or simply, is thinking of ending things. What ensues is a night of awkward conversations and repetitive red flags popping up in the girlfriend’s mind as she continues to find herself more and more confused as to why she is with Jake.
Before I get too ahead of myself, I should clarify, the film will make more sense and become more enjoyable if viewers understand a crucial detail from the beginning (*SPOILER ALERT*): Jake’s girlfriend isn’t real. Actually, a majority of the movie is not real. The night is a figment of Jake’s imagined life that he creates, apparently as an escape from his current reality of being an older man working as a high school janitor. So what’s the point of watching when nothing is exactly “real”? If not for the masterful use of a myriad of film techniques, the story also delivers powerful messages relating to mortality and how humans attempt to find purpose despite how life seems meaningless.
There is no weak link within the film’s cast. Each character manages to move the plot forward while maintaining an unsettling mood. Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis) jump back and forth between fawning over the Young Woman to choking up upon remembering that their son growing up means that they themselves are that much closer to death. If you blink, you’ll miss the quick shifts from giggling to lamentation as the two possess total control of the atmosphere at the dinner table and family room throughout Jake and the Young Woman’s visit.
Even actors with brief appearances, like the employees of the Tulsey Town ice cream shop (Hadley Robinson, Gus Birney, Abby Quinn), heighten the sense of doom hanging over the Young Woman’s head as the couple stops to get ice cream on their drive back home from Jake’s parents. The employees only have a screen time of about five minutes, and use every second of it to create a Twilight Zone-esque scene. From how they stare and giggle at Jake to the point of his discomfort, to how one of them (Gus Birney) whispers frantically to the Young Woman how she is afraid for her, each of the actresses make it clear that the Young Woman’s journey home will be nothing short of treacherous.
Above all, Jessie Buckley shines in her role as the Young Woman. Her careful facial expressions work harmoniously with her line deliveries to portray a woman who, being as smart as she is, cannot shake the feeling that she is missing some important detail that might reveal why she can’t figure out how she feels about her relationship. Buckley’s vocal inflections also demonstrate the caring, affectionate side of the Young Woman desperate to be the good girlfriend her boyfriend wants to have, as she often silences her own thoughts to reassure Jake that yes, of course she is excited to meet his family, and yes, of course she is having a great time. Nonverbally, she also hints at her discomfort. Frequent glances off to the side, as if checking to see if someone is watching her. A slow, unsteady pace as she explores the basement of the parents’ house, visibly on edge as she loses more of herself the deeper she travels into Jake’s world. But more than anything, Buckley allows the character to develop and progress to show how incredibly lost she is in this world that has been constructed for her. While her character may not notice each detail hinting at the underlying problem in her relationship, she knows things are not as they should be. And for that reason she cannot help but continue to ponder the sense of peace she might feel if she could just end things with Jake.
The cameras hold quite a bit of the weight of telling Jake and the Young Woman’s story, and add yet another layer to the film. Different camera angles further underline the idea that the couple, especially the Young Woman, is alone. When Jake and the Young Woman’s car pulls into the driveway of the parents’ house, a long shot and high camera angle showing Jake’s car from above reveals that there are no tire tracks on the snow-covered street besides his own. No one has arrived at or left the house recently, and judging by how rural the area is around the farmhouse, no one has arrived at or left the house at all since Jake and the Young Woman. It’s not exactly a comforting thought to have before watching the two of them enter.
At one point, the camera prematurely pans into the next room over, instead of following the characters as they move into the room. It is as if the camera already knows where this scene is going, where this evening is going, and is merely moving along to show a story of which it already knows the ending. This exaggerates the sense of uneasiness, as there is a moment of viewing a completely empty room, nothing, and then, oh, right, here are the people that we should expect to see here. In another instance during the dinner table scene, the camera watches the Young Woman from a room off of the dining room, and slowly pans away so that each member of Jake’s family is blocked by a wall and no longer within the shot, and it is only the Young Woman who remains. It makes a visual representation of how alone the Young Woman feels despite being surrounded by people who seem to enjoy her presence. It also presents her at such an angle that it seems like the Young Woman is closed off from others, despite being right in front of them, perhaps reflecting how the Young Woman will never truly be a real person.
The cameras also aid in portraying the Young Woman’s confusion even when she is not directly narrating it. A couple of times in the car, the camera would cut behind the Young Woman, still focused on her, but showing the back of her head instead. She would glance over her shoulder towards the camera, almost, but not quite, looking directly at it. These moments made it more and more clear that the Young Woman could not help but feel skittish and as if she is being watched, as she practically searches for a sign of it within these second-long cuts behind her.
After the couple leaves Jake’s parents’ and begins on the long car ride home, one long shot of the car makes it appear as though (or perhaps exposes the reality that) the car is not even moving, and the two will never get back home. This shot evokes, yet again, the uneasy sensation that the evening and the state of the relationship will be going nowhere, much like the car. This creates tension with how evident it is that to get somewhere, anywhere, is all that the Young Woman desires.
MOTIFS & SYMBOLS
Much of the film’s complexity is revealed through the reappearing images and symbols that hint at the ever-lurking theme of mortality. The opening of the movie introduces many of these symbols for the first time, though they only seem like commonplace items until the beginning scene is re-watched. A swing set, for example, is seen in one of the first shots, something easily associated with young, innocent children playing together. But this swingset remains empty, no children, no people, anywhere near it. The same swing set appears out of nowhere on the couple’s drive to meet Jake’s parents. The Young Woman comments on how odd it is to see a brand new swing set in the middle of a barren house, while Jake merely shrugs it off. Once again, the Young Woman begins to see the haunting emptiness of her surroundings, and the swing set seems to be a harbinger of the emptiness that is still to come.
Another image of innocence, Jake’s childhood bedroom, becomes a centerpiece for some of the recurring themes, even if it does not reappear as much as the other images. Jake’s bedroom at his parents’ house is practically a shrine to his adolescent innocence. When the Young Woman stumbles upon it she notices the room’s lingering youth. Jake’s father finds her in the room and comments on how small his bed is, once again reminding her of how Jake was once a young boy who was so full of potential. The condition of the room, although nostalgic, feels a bit off. It seems as if there is a conscious effort to preserve the innocence and youth Jake once had. To let him slip away completely would be to let him fall eventually to old age and death (as his parents reveal they are afraid of for themselves). Jake’s room reflects the recurring mood of trying to pretend life leaves humans untouched, when in reality, life is a process for humans that must one day end in death, something Jake and his family are clearly afraid of as they cling to the past reminders of his childhood.
A simultaneously youthful and creepy image becomes yet another representation of a fear of mortality: the clown logo for Tulsey Town ice cream. It’s no different than any other clown you might see in a movie, making it inherently creepy enough, yet to Jake the clown is a reminder of joy and youthful bliss, as the Tulsey Town commercials advertisements portrayed these themes. And no, the clown doesn’t just stop being unnerving solely because it’s a clown, but it’s the image of the clown that appears out of nowhere on a sign on the highway, grinning at the Young Woman that makes it frightening. Or the way the Tulsey Town employees themselves couldn’t stop grinning, much like that clown, when they spoke with Jake and the Young Woman. And no matter how much the clown may be an eerie, unsettling image, Jake refuses to see it as anything but a reminder of the youth he is constantly chasing.
So, to answer my original Google search, Charlie Kaufman may not exactly be “okay.” But are any of us, truly? Don’t we all live in the same blurred reality as Jake’s older version of himself does from time to time? If we can acknowledge that we often idolize the potential and possibility we associate with being young, or even immortal, we can then see that this film is not merely a director droning on about life and death, throwing symbols and a female lead in to make it more engaging. No, the symbols and Young Woman exist instead as placeholders for what we materialize within our own minds. The recognition, the perfect significant other, the money, the success, the whatever-it-is that would just make our achingly normal lives worth something.
And still, Kaufman warns that the fantastical dreams we create for our imagined lives are dangerous. While they may make the workday bearable or the loneliness livable, they are addictive, destructive distractions that keep us ignorant to the cold grip of reality.
By the final shot of the film, it becomes clear that Kaufman doesn’t merely play with the complex dualities between one’s factual and fictitious lives, but instead sculpts a delicately held together story of one’s fragile life — and lets us lean in and watch while it shatters.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is rated R.
If you enjoyed I’m Thinking of Ending Things (or even if you didn’t) you may want to watch …
Also from director Charlie Kaufman comes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. The two portray an unhappy couple, Joel Barish and Clementine Krucynski. After a messy break-up, the two decide to have one another erased from their memories by a new, albeit shady, procedure. What follows is another exploration of the in-between of waking life and the memories one lives in, as Joel becomes aware of the memory-erasing procedure and — mid-process — tries to save those once-romantic memories that he would prefer to keep. Through both comedic and tear-jerking performances the film serves as a reminder that one’s memories, while sometimes humiliating or painful, are still important pieces that build a life, whether or not they are acknowledged.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is rated R.
Elizabeth Dyer is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl