Watching a Charlie Kaufman film can be akin to reeling under a maelstrom of ideas, theories, cross-references and visual sleights-of-hand. Beyond two-thirds of the running time of any film written or directed by Kaufman, his over-layered narratives toss the viewer around, no matter how much of a sucker that viewer is for his basic genius to dare the never-seen-before and persistence to pick wounds deep inside of his characters or to lay bare layers of what his new film’s male protagonist describes as “black auras, millstones and oozing wounds”.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which Kaufman has written and directed, demands more than patience. I watched the 124-minute film, which is being streamed on Netflix, with three breaks, but that proved challenging because I tended to miss little details that have minor, subtle but illuminating pay-offs later. So over five hours, I rewound, replayed and managed a laboured but ultimately inspiring watch. If anything, Kaufman is a creative visionary, and it’s hard not to marvel at that.
The film has two parallel journeys, and both journeys involve a “Young Woman” who has various names (Jessie Buckley), and Jake (Jesse Plemons), a fragile, imploding, intellectually rigorous and truthful teacher. They are a couple who lives in “the city”. They are on a road trip to a farmhouse where Jake’s parents live (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) in the middle of an unremitting blizzard.
It is also a journey to Jake’s childhood – some scenes feel like they took off right from where the childhood portions of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which Kaufman wrote – and into the origin of his broken self. “Young Woman” is a physicist, poet, gerontologist and overall smart cookie with an empath’s heart but all her insights and wisdom are derived from brilliant authors and artists. Leo Tolstoy, Pauline Kael, John Cassavetes, Pauline Kael on John Cassavetes, the bogus origin of human hope – she articulates theories on loop.
Jake, on the other hand, is some sort of a teacher, a passive-aggressive, improved-upon but uncured toxic man given to short and scary outbursts of anger and pent-up self-loathing. He also has a clearsighted, meditative outlook on honesty and truth. He quite obviously voices and plays out Kaufman’s own arrogant, ponderous stance on existential dread and fakeness. If it all sounds psycho-babble with heavy symbolism, you are right, although that’s not what you would remember the film by.
There are moments when a seemingly minute detail in a sparse setting contains a multitude, a dull pain cultivated over a lifetime – imagine a bare, snow-filled expanse, slanting sun-rays filtering in through clouds and a car covered entirely in snow stuttering to start its engine by itself.
The character who keeps the narrative floating for the audience is Buckley’s “Young Woman”. She is confounded, frustrated, scared and settled comfortably in her harmless lies. She asks Jake the questions that have the promise to open up the story more and more, but that never really happens.
Buckley carries off the portrait of a survivor with a lot of conviction and is the soul of the film. She unearths patriarchy as well as brings out why a woman wouldn’t want to end her life with a man even though she may have serious misgivings about his patriarchal core.
The film’s title is also the first line uttered via voice-over. We know the “Young Woman” through running commentaries that unravel what’s going on in her head while she is pretending to be a good girlfriend to a man with whom she sees no future.
Jesse Plemons balances the brokenness and the surface calm of his imploding character efficiently. Toni Collette’s performance is a lesson in the histrionics of a disturbed soul. We see her debilitatingly old, spunkily young as well as ghostly. David Thewlis has similar challenges and he delivers without contrivances or tricks.
The last half hour is all Kaufman. An eerie detour, a janitor who embodies tragic ruin, a dance duet that ends in snowfall over blood, and an exasperating rumination on redemption, courage, memory and trauma whirl us into the climax, which is as confounding as it is memorable. What more is Kaufman trying to say? And why? I do have an answer, but I am not sure it is the right one. Thanks to Kaufman’s obsession with hyper-articulating his ideas, I’m Thinking of Ending Things becomes his own borrowed canvas, the kind his “Young Woman” is wont to adopt and which Kaufman satirises in this loud vortex of a screenplay.