I sometimes wonder: does Charlie Kaufman actually believe that anyone outside his mind is real? His main characters definitely seem to have their doubts. At times they seem to think that they’re the only real people in the world – and they’re not even sure of that. These characters also tend to b the Charlie Kaufman stand-ins in the films, the solipsistic, self-doubting sad sacks struggling with a distinct sense of unreality. If you need others to affirm that you exist, yet you’re not sure that they do, not really? Well, you’re in a bit of a pickle.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, adapted from the novel by Iain Reid, both very much feels like a Kaufman original and like a departure. The things it is concerned with – mortality, decay, existential mansplaining and the impossibility of romantic happiness (is there a link between those last two?) – are as essentially Kaufman as doppelgangers, melancholy and metafiction, but one key element is certainly novel: the protagonist of the film, the one who is thinking of ending things? She’s a girl. The young woman (Jessie Buckley effectively makes her the emotional centre of the film) is our entry point into the story. She is smart, articulate, and she voices – or thinks, in voiceover – the things we think ourselves. She is weirded out by this crepuscular, wintry trip into rural desolation, and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) isn’t making it much better. Jake displays many of the hallmarks of earlier Kaufman leads: he is neurotic and insecure, and his accommodating behaviour towards his girlfriends belies his neediness.
At the latest when they arrive at the farm belonging to Jake’s parents, we tend to agree with her when, again and again, she thinks of ending things – even if we’re not entirely clear on what she means by this. We want her to leave Jake and escape back to the city and to normalcy – anything to get away from this house and those people, the stories of maggot-infested pigs and the childhood bedroom straight out of Psycho. Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis) are creepy to begin with, and certainly no more reassuring when they begin to age or grow younger by decades within the time it takes the protagonist to leave the room and return again. And that’s not even mentioning Jimmy the border collie, who seems to blink in and out of existence when he isn’t shaking ceaselessly, as if old age and the sheer ominousness of his surroundings have put him in a permanent state of existentialist seizure.
And what’s with Jake calling his girlfriend by different names throughout the evening (is it Lucy? Lucia? Louisa? Amy?) and describing her field of study and the art form she engages in in wildly different ways: is she a neurologist and a poet? A painter and a quantum physicist? All of these? None of these? One moment she discusses complex concepts like interiority, the next she is lost for the easiest words. Reality is shifting around her and she is shifting as well, until she is barely certain of anything other than this: that she is thinking of ending things. To be fair, who wouldn’t – even before Jake ominously decides to conclude an evening filled with existential dread and cringe (remember, we’re in Kaufman country!) by stopping by his old highschool in the middle of the night?
It is difficult to discuss the film without spoiling some of its key mysteries, so this may be where readers who haven’t yet seen I’m Thinking of Ending Things may want to check out until they have. Gone? Okay, here goes: Kaufman likes characters uncertain of the reality they inhabit like an ill-fitting coat. The young woman finds the world around her to be shifting and unstable, yet for her own unstable self, she still feels like the most real thing in the film, thanks in no small part to Buckley’s immensely engaging, human performance. Well, surprise, suckers: there is no young woman. She’s made up, even more so than your regular movie character. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of a sad, ageing janitor at a highschool, going through his daily tasks with an air of quiet desperation. This janitor is Jake – but in his mind, he rewrites himself and his life, trying to make them better than they are. Most importantly, he gives his young self a girlfriend modeled on a woman he was dismissed by (cruelly, in his mind). Yet, for most of the film, we see Jake’s fantasy under assault by reality seeping in – a reality where he is old, alone and seen by the young highschoolers as the creepy old dude sweeping the corridors.
His girlfriend, whatever he decides her name to be, is a catch: she is smart, creative, good with words and with people, until he feels threatened by these things or remembers his feelings of resentment towards the girl she is based on, and hey presto!, she turns into a doltish bimbo whose vocabulary barely extends into the bisyllabic. Though, even if Jake is the author of this elaborate fantasy – partly wish-fulfillment, partly revenge fantasy -, it cannot hold up. As imaginary girlfriends are wont to do (paging Ruby Sparks!), she appears to have a mind of her own. When this postmodern Pygmalion starts to think of ending things, it seems to take Jake by surprise. It rattles him.
And this is where the film really puzzles me, because I can make some sort of sense of the rest of it, even if I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Kaufman in fine absurdist form. Does the young woman develop some autonomy? She certainly seems to: she is no mere puppet but appears to have thoughts and opinions that Jake isn’t privy to until she thinks them. She appears to be the stronger, smarter character of the two most of the time. From the first, and throughout the film, she makes a stronger impression than Jake ever does. This can be read as metafictional play – all narrative art forms have examples of fictional characters that a life of their own and not a few of them end up calling their creators to task – or, more psychologically, as a part of Jake’s psyche manifesting themselves in the girlfriend, and this part of Jake has had enough and is thinking, in starkly final terms, of ending things. Does old, sad Jake finally manage to shake himself out of stasis by means of the young woman he creates, or does she have agency of her own?
Whichever it is, I’m Thinking of Ending Things largely drops the Buckley character in its last fifteen minutes or so, and the film suffers as a result. It becomes the thing it wasn’t for the rest of its running time: another Charlie Kaufman movie focusing on a sad-sack solipsist obsessed with his own doubts and lack of self-worth. Kaufman does these characters well, but he’s done them before, and often at the detriment of the female characters (in particular in Synecdoche, New York). Sidelining the main character of a film in order to default to Kaufman As Usual – and, whatever her ontological status, the character played by Jessie Buckley is the main character for most of the film – is disappointing. Kaufman finds some hauntingly beautiful images to end things, but it fails by attempting to pull a bait-and-switch on the audience. Even if Jake is a sad character deserving of some sympathy, I’m not ready to extend this to him if most of the film gave us little reason to care, and even less so if the film’s actual emotional centre loses even the appearance of autonomy she had and becomes, at best, an extra. I can find interpretations that explain the narrative choices, but they are no substitute for a satisfying, coherent emotional through line. Kaufman made me care about the young woman. Even if she is a fabrication, I’m not built to transfer my affection from one fiction to another, supposedly slightly less fictional one at the whim of the story.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is unsettling and creepy, it has great performances and is often impeccably crafted. It is intriguing and frightening and oddly beautiful, but Kaufman finally drops the ball and flubs the ending for me. He cannot make his walking, talking fiction a Real Girl and then expect us to be happy when he, too, ends up treating her like a puppet.