“I really don’t have any solutions and I don’t like movies that do.” – Charlie Kaufman
Charlie Kaufman has gained a cult following for his highly original artistic vision. His latest film I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, a Netflix release, is a noteworthy addition to his corpus which includes masterpieces like Synecdoche, New York and Being John Malkovich (written by Kaufman). He takes a scalpel to what the world deems mundane and reveals something truly bizarre, something that defies categorization. Based on the eponymous 2016 novel by Iain Reid, the film deceptively revolves around the story of a couple who are on their way to visit the boyfriend, Jake’s (a brilliant performance from Jesse Plemons) parents. “I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks, it lingers, it dominates,” the girlfriend (played by Jessie Buckley) starts the film with these words, an ominous monologue which Kaufman superimposes on vignettes of a neglected existence: floral wallpapers that look like Rorschach tests, an empty house, abandoned furniture; ephemeral images which come into focus and dissolve far too quickly.
Kaufman takes the grand metaphysical explorations of Synecdoche, New York and Being John Malkovich and condenses their essence into a conversation-driven investigation like his 2015 stop-motion animated film Anomalisa. While driving through a snowstorm to introduce his girlfriend to his parents, Jake attempts to talk to his girlfriend but speech seems jarring and asymmetrical, piercing the silence. Initial impressions make us believe that the girl is talking about ending the relationship or her life and an overwhelming sense of alienation washes over us. The relative warmth of the car provides a false sense of security in a volatile universe. Jake says, “That’s why I like road trips. It’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than your own head.” Kaufman revels in postmodern irony and subverts the road-movie genre by following up with a stream-of-consciousness monologue, even while showing the desolate landscape. Instead of the external journey, he focuses on the microcosmic interactions in the car. We start to suspect that the nature of Kaufman’s cinematic construct is solipsistic, scattered with semiotic allusions to an unrevealed story (like a brand new swing set in front of an abandoned house). It’s a psychological incursion masquerading as a road trip.
The farmhouse that Jake grew up in is a heterotopic space that exists as a surreal function of a damaged memory. Despite the heavy snowfall, Jake exhibits no urgency in getting out of the snow and takes his girlfriend on a tour of the farm. Inhabited by sheep, dead lambs frozen in the snow and a burnt patch, the barn is a precursor of what’s about to come. Jake tells her about the pigs who had to be put down, a grotesque story about two pigs who had become attached by the underside of their bellies because of a mutual maggot infestation: Kaufman’s metaphor for a dysfunctional romance. Even when they make it inside the house, it is an unwelcome place. Jake’s parents do not come to greet them for a while which evokes a special kind of anxiety, the anxiety of anticipation. This becomes a central theme for Kaufman’s narrative: parading the uncomfortable. From the awkward car ride, we transition to a truly disturbing dinner scene with Jake’s parents (powerhouse performances from Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Moments of infantile outbursts, exaggerated laughter, half-baked recollections and food that nobody touches (because it’s from the weird farm), all of it contributes towards constructing an ineffably unsettling environment.
Right from the start, Jake and his girlfriend’s narrative is interspersed with seemingly random scenes from an old janitor’s life. It can be dismissed as the randomness of Kaufman’s characteristic chaos but as the film progresses, connections are slowly established. In one such scene, the janitor appears to be watching a fictitious film (directed by Robert Zemeckis) about a waitress and her lover. The narrative immediately cuts back to the future and we begin to see how little regard Kaufman has for unity of time. Subtle disruptions start surfacing, the jewellery that the girlfriend was wearing has changed, the bandage that was on Jake’s father’s right side of the forehead has shifted to the left and his mom’s hair has changed, her teeth have become yellow and she has suddenly developed hearing problems. Kaufman manages to depict the acceleration of time without the obnoxiousness of science fiction. Jake’s parents violently oscillate between youth and old age but the girl questions nothing. She is too busy figuring out her own identity, finding poems that she has recently written in books that have already been published. She discovers that the paintings she has worked on have already been made by Ralph Albert Blakelock. Not being able to confront the crippling anxiety of influence, all she wants to do is get back home.
On the ride back, Kaufman indulges in meta-commentary when Jake and his girlfriend discuss John Cassavetes’ 1974 film A Woman Under The Influence. By this point, it is clear that the girl is a fragment of Jake’s fantasy and her character traits are just variables that Jake inputs from time to time. She had previously mentioned that she had to get back home to finish a research paper about rabies but she now insists that the essay is about Cassavetes’ film instead. Not just that, she pulls out an obligatory cigarette while propagating intellectual onanism in an attempt to criticize the film, even citing a real 1974 review by film critic Pauline Kael. Kaufman hilariously dismantles the vantage point that film criticism claims to have, separating art from the vapid void of the pseudo-intellectual discourse that often follows it. However, he does not dwell on it and immerses the audience in his bizarre world by making the couple stop for ice cream in the middle of a blizzard. Logic is a non-entity in the Kaufmanesque universe because they end up throwing it away without having it.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is Kaufman’s scathing indictment of the societal fetishization of “genius”. We discover that everything that we have witnessed was a manifestation of the dying neurons in the old janitor’s mind. The girl was just someone he saw 40 years ago and at the end of his life, he rebelled against entropy by re-imagining his lonely life, filling it with delusions of success, emotional connection with a romantic partner and intellectual pride. Naked and overweight, the janitor follows the spectre of an animated, maggot-infested pig into the bowels of the school (a place that he was never able to escape). He dreams of his acceptance speech for a Nobel Prize, a prize that is awarded to some of the most original and innovative people on the planet, but even his speech is a regurgitation of Russel Crowe’s famous speech from the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind. Kaufman presents an unforgiving picture of the common man: filled with anxieties, fearful of death and propped up with an unoriginal patchwork of borrowed identities. The human condition is dissected and massacred, leaving Jake with this conclusion:
“I don’t think we know how to be human anymore.“
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