I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS: Who Are We When We Have No Identity?
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix.
Charlie Kaufman has a preoccupation with the mind, and the lengths we go to with those minds in order to convince ourselves that we’re at a higher class of animal than all the other animals. The world’s most prolific holy book insists that man was created in the image of god, but if Charlie Kaufman has anything to say about it, a monotheistic god is just as much likely to look like a pig being eaten alive by maggots.
He’s possibly our most gleefully nihilistic filmmaker, with the vast majority of his works ending in his self-absorbed but deeply neurotic protagonists destroying their own lives as their minds steadily decline. Kaufman is probably best known as the screenwriter of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In that film, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play a deeply insufferable couple that will remind us of ourselves, who both pay for a procedure to have their memories of each other erased, only to collapse fully into codependency by the end, unable to be alone with themselves longer than a few seconds. The film succeeds because Kaufman is able to capture the sweet spot between two deeply toxic people who are clearly bad for each other, kept aloft by their own surface level chemistry, but also understanding why these kinds of relationships happen so often. We can’t be alone with ourselves, we crave intimacy more than anything else in our short lives, and we’re willing to tolerate the wrong person because we’re terrified the right person doesn’t exist.
That’s probably his most accessible work, and you can’t fault yourself for being taken in by Carrey and Winslet’s chemistry. For those of us engaged in such relationships, we remember the rush of hormones, the honeymoon period putting rose-colored glasses over the red flags. We’re either the love-struck idiots unable to think properly or their friends around them, sadly anticipating the implosion that will follow. The rest of Kaufman’s work involves films like Adaptation, where he creates a biopic of a flower thief by inserting himself as the screenwriter of the adaptation of the biopic. There’s also his debut, Being John Malkovich, where a pretentious puppeteer unable to understand that only Jim Henson can make that work discovers a portal into the mind of John Malkovich that he turns into a scam, with the real John Malkovich playing himself.
The most devastating of his works, his debut as a director, is 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, where a playwright given a blank check to make any play he wants tries to make a play about his entire life inside his warehouse, and the more the production breaks down, so does his own mental state. I haven’t seen that film since I first saw it in college, and it was the first time in my life that I burst out sobbing in front of the friend group I saw it with because it hit me so deep. It hit me because Kaufman goes for the throat in the existential fears that film portrays. It’s impossible to describe without seeing, and it’s impossible to see without having some kind of emotional breakdown afterwards.
Needless to say, I say all this because Kaufman is an immensely important filmmaker to me, because his films have had an immense effect on my own development as a person. I walk into every new Kaufman understanding I might not be in the best place after, that I will confront things about myself I didn’t know I needed to confront. It works because it never sympathizes or excuses the awful things the characters sometimes do to each other, trapped fully in their own minds.
That’s all a preface to this, the newest Kaufman, out today on Netflix, and the premise is his most deceptively simple this time around. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not just the title, but the film’s entire premise, first and most frequently spoken line of dialogue, and about the only coherent thought this film contains. On its own, the concept is simple: an unnamed woman travels to meet her boyfriend Jake’s parents for the first time, but she wants to end the relationship. The two of them seem to tolerate each other more than like each other, and only seem to continue the relationship at all out of a sense of obligation. If you’ve ever been in a relationship that you realized you were in, after the fact, because the specter of being “single” hangs so much over you that you’re willing to tolerate them, that’s this to a T. I have been in that kind of relationship before. I have dated more than one equivalent to a Jake, who constantly pries, interrupts, and brags about various meaningless accomplishments that don’t amount to anything. I have dated a Jake, who has been so preoccupied with being seen as a genius that everything is an overcorrection, everything with him is a redacted letter to the editor, always having the last word.
Jake, played by Jesse Plemons, is intentionally exhausting to deal with, and the unnamed woman, played by Jessie Buckley, is given the full spectrum of human emotion to have to convey and all feel like it could be from the same singular performance. Buckley has already been praised extensively in a million other reviews for giving the year’s best performance. As much as I like being a special little camper for being a contrarian sometimes, make this a million and one. To say more about the chameleon-like performance she gives would be to say too much, and the abstract and surreal places the film ultimately goes the more that it begins to go intentionally off the rails. The film is about an impending breakup, but maybe that’s a red herring. Both the unnamed woman and Jake talk frankly about their own declining mental health, their suicidal ideation, their preoccupation with disease and death, conversations shifting from forced and jovial to going over the most morbid subjects possible, the only time the two seem to genuinely get along at all.
In short, within a few minutes you’ll both understand why the unnamed woman wants to end this relationship, but also why she continually justifies staying in it. Once you’re alone, you may never be with anyone else ever again. Is it better to gamble for a more compatible option or tolerate the tolerable one you’re with? How many of us believe we’re so attractive and/or charismatic that we’ll easily be able to find a new partner, partners, wherever our preferences lie? I’ve been in that conundrum myself, I think a lot of us have. This may sound like I’m intentionally complicating a subject that’s been the subject of many of a romantic drama, but the film goes to different places than you might expect, including an entire second half that’s closer to a surrealist visual tone poem than a film with a proper three-act structure.
I will warn you, as best I can, that the film does not end with any definitive questions about this deeply toxic and codependent relationship even remotely answered. The film is less a story with a beginning, middle and end than a cinematic litmus test for every single member of the audience. If you’re truly confident in your relationship, if you’re currently in one, try giving this one a shot and seeing how your partner responds to Jake’s full-throated endorsement of the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” or how he very casually tells a story about his family farm and dismisses how disturbing the story turns out to be. Does your partner seem to identify more with the unnamed woman or Jake?
One final note before I encourage you to go to your Netflix accounts, if you have one, and watch this film as soon as you can: despite this film being filmed last year, it feels like a pandemic movie. The film’s own non-linear idea of time and the way it seems to be removed from time entirely feels like my own. I don’t remember what day it is every day no matter what I’m doing. My idea of structure is completely gone as I try to get my work done, but my schedule is no longer exact. I often don’t remember what I’ve done or who I’ve talked to in any given week. I question the past choices I’ve made and the people I chose to spend time with. I question everything, whether I really believed what I believed or if I had enough people reinforce those beliefs around me. I often forget my own name, and when I wake up in the morning, I feel as though I’m reassembling my identity from scratch, that this is who I am and that even if I feel like who I was in the past was a different person entirely, that this is me, I have always been this. We have been taught to treat ourselves as unchanging, immutable entities, and perhaps that is why so many of us feel an existential dread and a draw towards the void. Every seven years or so, if the anecdote is remembered correctly, every cell in our bodies are replaced and we are wholly new people. Maybe we are different people every several years. At the age of twenty-one, I had entered a relationship with a person I believed at one point I was going to marry and spend the rest of my life with. We had decided that that was the plan we would take, that I would move with them to live with their uncle and work for him. That is no longer the plan, but at one point, if I was to describe myself to someone I just met, that is what I would tell those strangers. I had left my previous aspirations behind me, it was all decided. I was not to write the words I write today. And yet I write these words now and in another life, I have moved across the country and live with their uncle as their spouse. I had become theirs, so to speak, whether it was intended or not. We are often defined by who we keep company with. Is the person you are reading these words the same as who you are around each different friend? The way I speak to one friend does not reflect how to speak to one family member, or how I speak to someone I’m working for or with. The part of me that makes films is not the same that writes these words about films made by filmmakers.
We’re mutable and fluid, we are multitudes. That’s both a very lonely and very freeing thing at the same time. We are not meant to do one thing in unison for the rest of our lives. We are also not meant to have others deciding that mutability for us. I am physically alone as I write this. Would I write this differently if someone sat behind me and looked at me as I wrote these words, as my then-partner once did? Can you write or film anything without making it about yourself? Does this mean, by watching this film, I am watching Charlie Kaufman and every member of the cast and crew as themselves? Is it pretentious to even consider that?
I’m not sure. That’s the mood I’m in. I’d love to know where you go when you see this. I don’t know if it’s the year’s best in the most unconventional year in over a century. But I know it’s made me think the most and consider myself the most. That means something, doesn’t it?