***Spoilers for the Works of Charlie Kaufman***
When it comes to Charlie Kaufman, he is incredible at mining his fears, turning them into dark humor, all while flipping the medium he’s working in on its head. He openly admits he is always looking for a chance to “break the rules” of the art form he’s working in, and he grasps, possibly more than any successful filmmaker of the past 21 years, the idea that anything is possible in film.
A portal into a moderately famous thespian’s head (with puppets), an adaptation of a novel that eventually includes yourself as a main character (along with your fake twin brother), a service that erases specific memories of individuals so you never have to feel their pain again (with reminder letters conveniently sent to all your friends), a playwright uses a genius grant to create a work that recreates the entirety of NYC inside a warehouse that is in NYC (but never opens), a man sees everyone person in the world with the same voice and face, except one (again, with puppets).
These ideas aren’t presented as a puzzle or have a twist to figure out, they just are what they are. Kaufman only asks you to engage on his plane of reality and to just go with it, spinning you an original story while working out some of his worries. So, while the premise for Iain Reid’s novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (I haven’t read it, but have heard plenty about it lately) seems like an apt adaptation that Kaufman can connect with (while also tying his work to a small scale existing property to hopefully be more marketable), I have been confounded by it being the reference point for people trying to “unlock” Kaufman’s filmed adaptation of it.
I mean, maybe confounded is the wrong word (it is), it makes sense to look to the source. I guess what is confounding is that no one seems to be looking at the auteur’s filmography to try and “understand” what is going on. As stated before, Kaufman’s films don’t need to be “unlocked” or “solved”, they are truly meant to be felt. Understanding exactly what is happening has never been necessary to enjoy any of Kaufman’s previous work if you can give yourself over to it. In fact, that feeling of unease and mystery about what the hell is going to happen next is exactly what makes Kaufman’s work so exhilarating. I’m thinking of ending things is no different in this respect as the film is as unpredictable and affecting as any of the director’s other work. Another amalgamation of everything Kaufman fears and worries about through his art. Death, memory, agency, humiliation, relationships, these are all themes that are inherent to the Kaufman experience and this new one is no different.
Kaufman’s latest makes you feel like you are in the shoes of someone inside the mind of someone with dementia, fading out in their final days, grasping to make meaning and purpose of their fading life. Well, that’s what I’d say the back two thirds feels like, but the first third is Kaufman through and through as well, as he dissects what a woman might be thinking about when thinking about ending things. On a relationship level.
Kaufman just released an entire novel, Antkind, where you are in the head of a film critic B., who spends every moment worrying about what others think of thon and making sure thon can argue away any possible offense thon causes. The book is kind of incredible, but seeing Kaufman get in someone’s head on the other side of his predominantly self-centered male protagonist is one of the most exciting elements of i’m thinking of ending things. All of Kaufman’s male leads have a little some of him in them, which in turn makes the “young woman” a chance for him to critique himself from a perspective that is empathetic to anyone who has had to put up with people like his leads. Kaufman’s ability to also reflect on the grueling work women have to put into dealing with sensitive man children (most men), who need constant approval from the women in their lives (who shall also never critique them), is impressively realized by both his script and the incredible lead performance by Jessie Buckley.
Buckley stars as the young woman, and is another interesting and supremely acted female character in Kaufman’s filmography, but the women in Kaufman’s films are almost exclusively projections of the men who lead them. The guy writes what he knows, but the inner monologue of the young woman in i’m thinking of ending things feels like Kaufman broke through to the inside of female interiority. And if you think not, the book and film have an added safety net that the young woman is arguably a projection inside the male lead, Jake, character’s mind; so any calls for poor representation can be written off as the failures of Jake’s ability to understand women (failures of which Kaufman would, surely, admit he has as well). But here is the thing, Kaufman doesn’t need the safety net. The young woman feels real (even without a name), has agency in this film (same), and has salient points on being in a relationship with a man like Jake. All credit shouldn’t go to Kaufman, Reid’s novel is apparently similar, and Kaufman takes words from accomplished women in real life and gives them to the young woman too. As I type out that last sentence, I wonder if the young woman has as much agency as I think? I think she ultimately does, especially in the middle section of the film at the family house, as she tries to navigate this deteriorating mind space Jake has concocted.
While I can’t defend accusations of the finale pushing the young woman aside for Jake’s final(?) fever dream of how he wants to be remembered (like A Beautiful Mind, apparently), I think she serves as an influence and a contrast for Jake’s mental state. The dream ballet, speech and final song from “Oklahoma” is a softer ending than Reid’s (“kills” the woman), but Kaufman’s take adds a layer of tragedy all the same. While Jake’s mind might not try to murder this ideal young woman in Kaufman’s film, it still says a lot that Jake decides to send her off to be just another approving voice in the crowd of undeserved approval. This young woman has been challenging Jake the whole film, pushing him, teaching him, encouraging him to listen. Trying to make him a better man. A better partner. And Jake decides in the final moments of his dementia riddled mind that he would throw that all away if it means he can remember himself as both a genius and an artist of merit. It’s sort of obvious this is the way Jake’s mind would go, as a man this late in his life would never admit he was wrong and wish he could have done better (even if deep down he wants to) and that is some seriously sad stuff.
Toni Collette and David Thewlis’ characters (mother & father, respectively) are in a sad situation too, but their performances ascend their section of the film into dark humor nirvana. This section of the film is the most stuck out of time, but also tackles a number of the themes Kaufman is so frequently engaged with. Death and aging being at the forefront, as the two parental characters change age and demeanor from scene to scene. Thewlis’ father is most explicitly inflicted with some form of dementia, which really brought the film full circle for me as this is something that clearly runs in the family. Kaufman’s examination of the topic here is, surely, coming from a place of personal terror around the thought of slowly losing your thoughts, and who would blame him? It’s terrifying. We start as an observer of Jake’s deterioration through the young woman’s eyes, before being shoved into the mix entirely as we try and grasp on to anything to make sense of things during the whirlwind finale. Maybe it isn’t so sad to erase all of those faded feelings for a delusion of grandeur?
It’s worth pointing out here how amazing Collette and Thewlis are in these middle scenes. Seemingly aware of where they are (Jake’s Dementia Addled Mind, if you lost track), but have an agency here all the same. Colette’s performance is always aware of how Jake might react to it, giving it an anxiety and an edge that only elevates her hilarious performance. Thewlis’ father on the other hand does not give a fuck what Jake thinks, and his performance is equally great as Collette’s. That blank stare Thewlis can give, it just killed me, and I love how much he was infatuated with the young woman. Almost amazed at another being has been allowed here, while appreciating her more than he ever did the son he was disappointed in.
The journey through time at the house visits many of the horrors of aging, staring down the inevitability of death, and the film’s final act almost feels like Jake’s mind making one last grasp at trying to find any way to avoid said inevitability. Being John Malkovich was about living forever, Synecdoche, New York was about learning to die (among, well, everything), Antkind is, sort of, about what if you couldn’t die, and i’m thinking of ending things seems to be about how to die. The title starts as a question around the young woman’s relationship status, but by the end is about Jake’s own mortality. Is his choice to exit his life in a fever dream of adulation sad or a respite from living his life slipping through time; unaware of the decade, age or which Robert Zemeckis’ film he is watching? Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind deals with the pain associated with losing your memories of someone you loved and coupled with i’m thinking of ending things it feels like Kaufman might come down on the side of a respite from his perceived terror.
The ending remains a sly critique either way, at how pathetic it can look to become the sum of your pop culture parts. For someone that has created such unique pieces of art over the last twenty plus years, Kaufman doesn’t seem like someone that wants you to obsess over him. The disdain he has for B. in his book “Antkind”, a man made of nothing but references, could be applied to Jake as well. Jake lifts his own life’s finale from a Ron Howard film (one of the best jokes in the movie), how sad is that. The meta brilliance of it all is great too, as Kaufman mashes together Oklahoma and A Beautiful Mind to create the ending to his film, making it his (Kaufman’s) own, while shaking your head at Jake for doing the same. And props to Jesse Plemons, who plays the part perfectly so that we can apply all of this analysis upon him, consider Jake a bad person, but be able to watch him glare and grump his way through whatever this is in an entertaining way.
One last thing, what exactly is going on with that final shot, post credits. That is the car the young woman and young Jake arrived in, and the last person in it was the young woman, so why is the engine kicking on in the morning? Is the young woman real? Has she escaped? I really can’t wrap my head around this final little beat Kaufman gave us, but I hope the young woman was able to escape and have her own reality, somehow.
If you feel like you need to try and solve i’m thinking of ending things, stop. It’s an experience to be had, not figured out, and you’d be better served trying to understand how Kaufman’s film makes you feel rather than figuring out how it all happened. Kaufman is always operating a bit outside reality, so applying our reality’s logic to his work is futile. But, if you need to dig deeper into this film, dig into Kaufman’s previous work. Reid’s book seems to have been a starting place for Kaufman, a structure, but Kaufman has made the film his own.