That’s my cheap but sufficient subtitle for Charlie Kaufman’s masterwork “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which is not about suicide.
Not in the conventional sense, anyway. It’s a deep and moving exploration of the fogged up, snow-blind interiors and exteriors of ourselves: present, past and future. Who we are, who we want to be; who we were, who we could have been; and who we might be, who we can become.
And all the dense, sticky Yule log muck that sidetracks what we desire – or think we need- for ourselves in small and subtle, obvious and big ways. The maze walls of self and society:
From gender bias to heredity, mindset, resentment – familial and otherwise – issues of class and station, the essential and many elements of the withering judgement of others – that of ourselves and those we know – what we value, celebrate, award; and how so often what we value or reward is the antithesis of what we might be better off focused on.
There are big questions asked through big art with big ambitions in this film. And we admire that Kaufman takes such big swings: Few do. And tickled still with how little of what he’s trying to convey is delivered on the nose (although the hindsight obviousness of the meta-meaning stealthily pinned underneath the film will make you smile upon discovery).
The couple at the heart of the story, two highly educated and intense twenty somethings – a young woman still at University, and her slightly older boyfriend – are on a road trip through a nighttime blizzard to meet the suitor’s parents at their farmhouse.
The bleakness of the landscape, the snow-blanketed plains of unending fallow fields in the middle of a long, post-holiday winter, carries with it a dread, the underlying sense of unmarked graves and locked basement doors. It’s a visual mood Kaufman infuses the screen with cannily as he toys with genre, stitching together what at various moments can seem a suspenseful thriller, articulate dramedy, surreal psychodrama or horror movie.
It’s comedy, however, Kaufman’s most overlooked attribute, a genre – and required life tool – which he began his career in, that nicely leavens the frozen loam. I especially like the cheap deadpan meta joke – borrowed though it is (the film is based on Iain Reid’s novel of the same name) – of making his wholly and humanly inhabited, multifaceted, fully fledged female lead – whose inner thoughts we’re privy to – so obviously a plot device to explore life’s biggest questions: She’s at various moments described as a poet, artist, physicist, gerontologist, film critic and psychologist. It gives Kaufman’s co-stars vast open space over which to roam, and they do. Led by our leading lady’s sensible cynicism and a wit that’s just ever so winning enough that when she seems startled to later find out that her creative achievements may have been no more than rote reproductions of the works of others, we hardly register the embedded and wry art criticism (everything’s borrowed, been done, based on something), including that of the novelist’s and the filmmaker’s own work, or our seeming ingenue’s character flaw: We’re too invested in our lady’s fate to care. We’d fallen in love by then with her monologues (delivered pitch-perfect by Jesse Buckley) not least because they seem the only trustworthy lodestars in the storm. (Even though we detected famous film critic Pauline Kael’s [ear-tug] arch prose emanate melodiously from Buckley’s lips.)
Kaufman (and Reid) wink at us here about the shortcomings of narrative. The who’s-who literal interpretation of the novel’s plot is its weakest part; knowing it, in fact, ruins the power of the film. If you’re watching this as a whodunit or reading any “explainers” you’ve killed your own experience of the piece and the point of the film. Kaufman’s success is in making it matter none whether the smarter of these two companions is idealized or imagined by the other. It’s that they’re, despite everything, believed. It’s the lack of pretension (pointing without explanation at the glaring unlikelihood of the character’s protean smartypants endeavors, rather than trying to cloak them in plausibility or force on us some sort of genius or protagonist worship), which makes this film, with all its philosophical dialogue, seasoned at its base with resignation and humor, from what could easily be cringeworthy and navel-gazing into what we believe is an optimal humanist treatise on our shared frailty. We’re unafraid to call it a masterpiece. One on aging and one for the ages. A big swing indeed.
The inimitable Jesse Plemons as the boyfriend Jake conveys a topographic map of tenderness, insecurities, creepy sentimentality and Plains state dysfunction – rage erupting from beneath his pain-pinched expressions at unexpected moments. He takes to asking his lover of 6 weeks a question imbued with worry that he should be asking himself about his inability to peel out from memory lane: “What are you thinking?” She lies, as he continues to toss them into the black hole of his hometown history. If you insist past is not prologue then why do you keep hanging out there?!
And worrying about the “truth” of his date, as mentioned previously, is a waste of time: Aren’t all heroines myths, anyway? This is “pretend” after all. Who really is the old high school janitor who keeps popping up? Who cares: View him as metaphor. That’s the ultimate truth of what “he” – any character – is. Again, what makes this film so special is that it isn’t the sum of its plot. Nor is it an equation involving the specificity of its characters or source material. It’s so much larger than that: It speaks to all of us. We thank Kaufman for that.
There’s plenty that happens on the sidelines of the couple’s pit stops too: The conundrums that beauty or youth is anathema to an intellectually fulsome life, the seeming culture wars of pretty versus smart, the working versus the creative class, whether there’s an age limit on being able to create great work – while these are mulled as conditions or judgements, Kaufman seems to ground them in choice: That when we essentially seek the wisdom of age or the ages, or as we’re killing our young selves to grow up, or whatever existed of our own hopeful, joyous, young minds and bodies by heaping upon them experience and so many days, our choices are not so much radical as they are predictable as yesterday’s weather. Youth is wasted on the young; people make bad decisions. Our inability to transcend our own bodies or minds: You have to laugh, because it’s funny. Funny as a frozen lamb.
If Kaufman has his own constellation he’s trying to desperately follow we think it’s this: To know that the safe choices can do irrevocable harm.
This is under the old rubric that the safest choice risks more than the chance never taken. Think of the absurd hypothetical choice of winning and keeping lifelong love of another human being, or winning a Nobel prize.
Clap now if your choice is to do what you’ve always been good at and clutch that gold medal while you die alone? It ain’t about you anymore, kid. Was it ever? I mean, we all die alone. But there’s a choice to be made in creating the possibility that there can be someone at your side who knows and loves you who can help see you out.
While this terrible time of Covid has taught us perhaps now more immediately than ever we may never be able to choose the death we want, we’re certainly enabled to take a swing at choosing the life we seek.
And if the goal is to avoid becoming a novelist’s plot line, why not make the mop the prop and swing big?