Charlie Kaufman is one of those creators who do not explain their works to viewers. Considering the fact that the writer of the award-winning Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze, 2002) approaches his original adaptations with great creative freedom — this is an honest strategy. I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman’s latest film available on Netflix, based on Ian Reid’s book which goes by the same title, is a model example of this principle. Here, on the basis of the original literary work, something non-literal has been created, which arises not from the text itself, but secondarily, from its (individual, personal) understanding.
Although interpretive excursions and catching numerous contexts are particularly tempting in this case, I will rather follow in Kaufman’s footsteps, focusing on feelings rather than trying with all my might to understand what the famous American bookworm meant.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a film that delves very deeply into the psychology of the characters. It is an awkwardly funny film, but it also feels like a psychological thriller. It is an introverted, closed film and — at least at first sight — bizarre, but most of all, it is a consciously awkward film. Filled with somewhat lengthy pauses between dialogues, exchanges of gazes that went a step too far, misplaced jokes, half-sassy, half-unruly laughter, tactlessness and omnipresent feeling of shame.
There is probably no more awkward situation than introducing (or being introduced) one’s girlfriend or boyfriend to one’s parents. And it is even more awkward, when one is thinking of ending things. This is how the plot of the film begins, in which the (awkward) tension oscillates around love and burnout, unfulfilled expectations and a lack of communication. Young Jake (Jesse Plemons) takes his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) to his parents. And it is her who contemplates ending this relationship, while driving with Jake in a car, trying to break through a landscape dense with whiteness, plagued by a snowstorm.
Although at first glance it seems that as viewers we are adopting the perspective of a heroine whose nameless experiences (the girl once functions as Lucy, another time Jake calls her “Ames”) may be perceived as universal, the lack of a classical linear order suggests that both she and other characters are virtual, that they are a kind of projections — of memories, attitudes or ideas — composed of books, films, meetings. Once Jake’s parents will be of the age one would expect from parents of 30-year-old, in their sixties, other times they will be demented elderly people, as if Lucy/Ames, being in contact with other projections, were some kind of relay through which time passes. and different stories and their variations merge.
Whose projections are these? Perhaps Jake as he rethinks his past relationships, experiences and identity. Perhaps an elderly janitor, whose character is a framing device for the entire film (maybe everything seen is his life memories or images of an old man bored with loneliness?). Or maybe it is only (or so much) a projection of the viewer, consisting of a set of film impressions.
Regardless of the answer, I’m Thinking of Ending Things can no doubt be called Kaufman’s solipsistic fantasy. Although we do not know who is looking, we know that this is a lonely, introverted person for whom the world has been closed or is now closing. This world consists of stimuli, feelings, impressions limited by the subject’s imagination. What is left for the viewer when this vision ends? Probably just to relive it once again, to watch the film for a second time — but it will only be a mere repeat, a sad reenactment. There the possibilities of cognizance ends, where the subject meets his limits, the creator seems to convince.
This is perhaps Kaufman’s darkest work so far. The landscape is deceptively open and moving, the road strewn with heaps of snow does not seem to end, but just as well the car in which the characters are driving could stand still — as if time in this blinding white void really stopped. Or maybe at this one point (in the mind?) in space different times and different places intersect?
The background is overwhelming with its repetition, as if we were locked in a glass snowball. Similarly, the interiors and places visited by the characters are like lonely islands of reality, washed away by imaginary, irrational, frozen time covered with flakes of memories. Space is therefore open insofar as it can be modeled by thoughts or memories (because in a sense it is Jake’s memory, this is where he was born and grew up), and at the same time it is claustrophobic, cold and strange.
There is something familiar about experiencing this movie. There is a persistently imposing comparison to the experiences accompanying the daily routine of staying in the coronavirus quarantine. Stuck in a stop between the anxiety of intrusive, recurring thoughts, forced confrontation with oneself, and the absurdity of repeating the same simple activities that slowly become more and more difficult and irritating. Staying in the same, more and more strange place, and facing the choice — to reconcile with oneself or became deaf from the noise of inner voices. There is no better portraitist to experience isolation caused by a pandemic (or perhaps more broadly, experience of alienation, lack of understanding, and isolation in general; the psychological one in particular) than Charlie Kaufman, who nurtures his neurosis with unique affection.
The creator is basking in tension, this inability to reconcile with his inner self. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a work balancing on the verge of an emotional outburst. However, it will never come. Instead, we are served with successive levels of reflection, a kind of passive observation. Reliving the hopelessness and waiting for a solution.
But this little, emotional, personal apocalypse was written by someone who was already in it. The pandemic closure and confrontation with the cage in one’s head was nothing but an excuse to renew introverted vows, to unearth what had previously been meticulously buried and hidden from the world. The world that is slowly turning from a global village into a xenophobic, claustrophobic, now-only-village, where virtual screens have replaced windows.
One gets the impression that the picture of emotional alienation in the film has been exaggerated. After long months, which — perhaps irreversibly — changed the reality known to us, it is hard to cry with a similar commitment over the spilled milk of the hurt self. We have been here before. But maybe thanks to this experience it is easier to understand — at least on the level of feelings — the American filmmaker?
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not a work devoid of subtle (awkward) humor, and perhaps it was this self-irony that saved Kaufman from emotional exhibitionism. What’s more, it is impossible to deny the image of disturbing hypnotism, which may be due to the outstanding camera work by Łukasz Żal. And even if most viewers will become a confused ball of thoughts after the screening, it is worth remembering that in this community of closure we are all introverts.