Anytime I think of Charlie Kaufman, I think of my favorite of his films, Adaptation. In it, the lead character of Charlie Kaufman, posits that the goal for all screenwriters is to come up with something new and original. Despite adapting from the book by Ian Reid, Kaufman has once again succeeded in I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Kaufman has his passionate champions, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things comes across as an entry in a serialized story where I have missed all other installments. This is Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I have not seen any other Marvel movies.
Jessie Buckley stars as…the lead character, who is mentioned by a number of names with a number of occupations throughout the film. As the title suggests, she is thinking of breaking up with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) as they venture out to his family farm to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). All the while, we keep catching glimpses of a high school janitor as he goes along with his daily work among the performances of the musical Oklahoma!.
Kaufman seems to be playing a joke. During dinner with the parents, Jake’s dad is speaking about art and how he doesn’t understand abstract. There is no humanity in it and the only art he appreciates are portraits that look like photographs, because he couldn’t do it in a million years. All the while, there is no consistency with the characters, actions, beliefs or personalities. While showing something seemingly like a portrait, Kaufman presents only the abstract.
It is also made clear in the early going there will be no answers. When the parents switch between only and young versions of themselves, no rhyme or reason is given. When the perpetually wet dog won’t stop shaking, and disappears for periods of time, you take it as it comes. Inconsistencies are presented as the norm rather than a question. If no reason is given for why things are as strange as they are, you don’t focus on it for any longer than it needs to be.
Buckley functions as a protagonist and audience surrogate. She remains thoroughly confused throughout the proceedings, despite being a major focal point amidst the confusion. Seemingly always a breakthrough candidate in every film she plays, Buckley plays dumb while playing too smart. The performance anchors the movie in a sense of reality while bending to that reality at any opportunity. The film does not work in the lightest without her fortitude.
Plemons’ characterization is the only consistency. No matter what occurs around him, he keeps his monotone voice steady and comes across as the awkward ideal. By no means is Jake a catch, but he is pleasant enough and Plemons never stretches beyond his purpose. It shows a great deal of restraint to stay the steady beat of the film. Collette and Thewlis are all over the place because their characters are all over the place. Thewlis especially shines as he contorts his persona and hiss of a voice to unsettling, but warm overtones.
There gets a point in this languorous film where everything is so surreal, that nothing was normal. Kaufman overplays his hand and dips his toes too far in. I’m not looking for answers, but there were so many questions that I didn’t care what the answers were. On top of that, Kaufman so clearly is cynical about the world that it begs the question why I should care if he doesn’t? The apex of his cynicism concerns old age. Characters get younger and older at a whim and Jake espouses monologues about time and age. With a tad bit of optimism in the face of growing old, maybe the 135 minutes would have gone by a little quicker.