I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), Charlie, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down

Charlie Kaufman has made two movies and released them in a contained, movie length package, and it’s extremely hard to talk about. 

Kaufman is one of those filmmakers who makes movies so hermetically sealed and deeply personal that they are functionally review proof. They are here, and they exist, and talking about them fundamentally comes down to a matter of taste, and he absolutely, one hundred percent, does not give a single shit if anyone actually enjoys his work. I suspect that in a post Adaptation world everyone sees Kaufman’s personality as inherent in his work. Adaptation is a work that looks at The Death Of The Author straight in the face and says, “and what bitch?”. These works tend to annoy me from the start. To force me to reckon with the presence of an author whose life I really don’t care about at all, and to make that life and public persona so inherent in the work that is being consumed that you almost are required to have foreknowledge of the life and works of the author to even begin to process the work how it was intended? How about fuck you? I want to watch a movie, and that’s it. I do not want homework. This is where I get off on artists like Lars von Trier, Taylor Swift, or Kanye West. The amount to which I care about Taylor Swift’s real life break ups or the Grammy event with Kanye or his continual poking of that beef, is not a single jot. I care about Taylor Swift’s reputation, not a single bit, so to listen to a whole album that is self-confessedly about that is a mind numbingly boring experience. This is all talking around the fact that there is no guarantee that anything that happens to fictional Charlie Kaufman in the story of Adaptation actually happened, and taking the work that way, it is a glorious, self mocking commentary on the way audiences crave to insert an author who they can project their life onto. In every interview I’ve heard with Kaufman, instead of neurotic and heart-on-sleeve, he can come across as standoffish, both condescending and oblique, and incredibly resistant to explicit self-commentary. In this way, maybe I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the most truly Kaufman-esque work he’s created to date. The other thing is that the moral of Adaptation, the thing that fictional Charlie Kaufman learns over the story is the presence of an audience who have value to the storyteller above receptacles. Entertaining your audience with accessible storytelling has value. Your idiosyncrasies and vanity isn’t everything Charlie. It is then disappointing that with every subsequent release he has more and more forgotten his own moral. 

Now I don’t want to bury the lead anymore than I already have so I’ll just come out and say that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is good. It is a compelling look at social alienation and the depression that sets in when you realise that you have sleepwalked into social commitments that just might slowly kill you. For fans of Gone Girl, Certain Women, & Hereditary. That being said it is nowhere near as competent, holistic, or just good as any of those films. I refuse to say it’s like Mulholland Drive because people say it’s like Mulholland Drive in that it is weird like, go watch a Leos Carax movie or an Andrew Kötting movie or a Luis Buñuel movie or something.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things stars a phenomenal Jessie Buckley as… a woman, that’s all I say here. She is thinking of ending things, ambiguously about suicide or just her shitty relationship to her controlling asshat of a boyfriend played by Jesse Plemons. They’re going to see his parents and… something happens. I knew something was afoot when 15 minutes in Buckley’s jumper changed shade between edits. That is… the least of the strangeness…  I can absolutely see why the Lynch comparisons have been made because what happens is elusive and has an air of threat of which it is hard to put a finger on and it has exaggerated performances a plenty, but if I was going to make a Lynch comparison, the clear one is obviously Eraserhead. There’s also stylistic borrowing from the stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the homages are there and obvious.  There’s also a moment that very clearly evokes Southland Tales of all things, but I also would not be surprised if Kaufman hates every film I have mentioned, but also that is very much not something that should be discussed when assessing the quality of his film. 

This is what I mean, all discussions of his work as individual pieces of art come back to him, and he makes no effort to hide this, and I hate it. 

Now the novel this film is based off is classified as a horror, I haven’t read it. This film is uh, not a horror. Which is a shame because the moments where this film works is in its overtly unsettling and scary scenes. Like all the stuff in the house involving time, like the scene at the milkshake shop, when Kaufman is out to fuck you up he is surprisingly good at scaring the shit out of you. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie is just so fucking tedious, and boring, and dull, and tedious, and boring and dull, and featuring a random recital of a Pauline Kael review for A Woman Under The Influence and quoting other books that we see around the movie. I… I don’t know about you Charlie, but I don’t assume people have seen A Woman Under The Influence. Like I wouldn’t write a movie in which people randomly start quoting lines from Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames now, would I? That being said Buckley doing a note perfect impression of Pauline Kael was charming as fuck. He’s made a great horror picture and an obnoxious film student art film and I don’t know how to feel about it. These are the two movies that he combines into some kind of cinematic chimera.

That brings me onto my next point, the performances all around the board are stellar and contribute to Kaufman’s beautifully observed portrait of depression and stilted relationships. I will watch Toni Collette read the phone book even if some have taken issue with her performance. I did not. David Thewlis is also very enjoyable. 

So. 

So what to do with all of this? I think it’s pretty clear that any reaction to this movie is gonna come out as scattershot as the structure and quality of the movie itself. It has been difficult writing this review to contain my thoughts outside of incoherent ramblings. I want to rail against this movie, and I want to praise it. When I’m actually watching it I feel, to be honest, kind of bored, but when I have to talk about it I find the movie infuriating! In the same way as with Lars von Trier, there’s a little voice inside me telling me this is exactly the reaction Charlie Kaufman was aiming for with the movie, partly because the movie is so obfuscating and oblique that a frustrated reaction seems inevitable,  but also because that is the persona that, while not actively cultivated by Kaufman, is present in his work that he doesn’t really do anything to assuage, and I hate that about this film most of all. It invites me to read Kaufman into it, and I really don’t want to. I do not need Charlie Kaufman’s projected media persona living rent free inside my head. 

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