It was the last day of my High School’s performance of Annie. I had gotten into my costume (I was playing the janitor who inadvertently helps Annie escape the orphanage) and makeup way ahead of time. With nearly two hours to go until showtime, I decided to take some time for myself. Waltzing out a back exit, I proceeded to just walk through the schools’ nearly-empty parking lot. On this January evening, the silence was deafening. Cold wind wrapped around my body like a blanket. Being that this was my Senior Year of High School, I knew only four months separated me from the realm of adulthood. As I took each step, I had a chance to think about what the future had in store for me.
Who am I? Where am I going? Am I doing enough? How do I define a valuable life? Heck, what even is the purpose of living? You don’t get time to think about those kind of things when you’re so busy in High School. Little did I know there would be even less time to ponder such questions when you’re an adult. Though my thoughts that day were heavy, it did, in the long run, feel good to just have a moment to myself, to contemplate. Before the madness of that evening’s final performance, as well as the madness of wrapping up my Senior year of High School, I got to push the pause button on life to think about things greater than myself.
Maybe it was the constant presence of chilly weather in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Maybe it’s the introspective quality that permeates all Charlie Kaufman works. Maybe it’s how Jessie Buckley’s red hair reminded me of Annie’s similar locks. Or maybe I’m just stretching more than Mr. Fantastic doing aerobics. But Kaufman’s new film I’m Thinking of Ending Things reminded me of that cold January night, especially in regards to how I’ll be thinking about it for a good long while. Ending Things concerns an unnamed woman played by Jessie Buckley, whose going up to meet the parents of her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons). As Buckley’s lead character informs the viewer through voice-over at the start of the film, she’s thinking of ending things. Is she referring to just this relationship or her own entire existence?
Well, we’re firmly in the world of Charlie Kaufman filmmaking, so don’t expect an easy answer, or any kind of answer, to that question. Through I’m Thinking of Ending Things and past works like Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman reminds one how grand it is when films aren’t beholden to strict logic. His films conjure up images that are meant to invoke specific moods or larger questions, not adhere to a set of rules on how all movies should behave. That commitment to upending norms makes for such a thrilling viewing experience. That sense of unpredictability is especially true for Ending Things, which tinges that feature with an eerie quality.
At times, Ending Things explicitly echoes horror features. A scene of Buckley’s character walking downstairs to a forbidden basement is an especially key example of this. The claustrophobic framing of her going down the steps. The way Jake has built up the basement as a place you cannot and should not go to. The heavy presence of dark lighting. Jay Wadley’s score taking on an unnerving musical quality. This is an explicit example of this trait that weaves its way throughout all of Ending Things. Heck, Jake’s parents live on a run-down farm in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma that doesn’t look all that removed from where Leatherface and his family live in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Constant reminders of mortality in Kaufman’s work has always lent a sense of uneasiness to them. But with Ending Things, he takes it another step further by explicitly utilizing the visual and auditory hallmarks of horror films.
Most unsettling of all in Ending Things, though, are actually some of its most stripped-down scenes. These would concern the two lead characters sitting down to eat with Jake’s parents, known simply as Mother (Toni Collette) and Father (David Thewlis). Kaufman’s screenplay agonizingly captures the most awkward version of these encounters. Mother and Jake have a squabble over the word Genus while Father keeps making insulting comments about abstract paintings in front of Buckley’s character, who is an artist. It’s all so perfectly executed for maximum squirm-inducing effect and is bound to get one all wrapped up in anxiety. In the middle of these encounters, amusement is found in some great pieces of dark comedy. Father constantly reaffirming how he can’t understand the mood of a painting unless he sees a person in the painting expressing emotions especially had me chuckling.
This dinner sequence is helped mightily by the performances of the central cast members, all of whom equip themselves well in the roles they’ve been handed. Collette, for example, is great at putting on a happy face while communicating an unhinged quality in her mannerisms. Despite playing a character with no name, Buckley’s able to inform plenty of compelling detail into her role. Particularly impressive in her performance is how well she’s able to create a world of difference between her on-screen performance and her more existential voice-over. This creates a sense of dissonance for her character out of far removed her exterior appearance is from her interior thoughts. Through this, we vividly understand just how miserable she is. Also, as a side note, it’s truly stunning how Buckley creates a wholly new person from her lead character in Wild Rose. She’s truly going places as an actor.
And then there’s Jesse Plemons, a truly gifted performer whose been able to inhabit so many different kinds of characters in projects ranging from Fargo to Other People. However, between Breaking Bad and Game Night, he’s especially talented at being the guy you call for characters who know what people should behave like but can’t convey that behavior naturally. That trait is perfect for the role of Jake, a man whose car-ride conversations with Buckley’s character immediately put one on edge. As Buckley notes in her voice over, Jake does seem caring and kind, but it all feels…forced. Like he’s putting on a performance of a good boyfriend rather than actually being one. Plemons’ casual delivery of Jake cutting off or undercutting the wishes of his partner excellently further reinforces this inauthentic quality of Jake.
Buckley and Plemons both deliver striking performances in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, ones informed by discernably human qualities that also provide the foundation for the most heightened pieces of imagery found in Ending Things. Much of these visuals make haunting use of empty spaces, including a scene set a Dairy Queen/Sunshine Creamery hybrid in the middle of a snow-covered landscape as well as recurring sequences dedicated to a janitor (Gus Boyd). This custodian is seen mopping up long-vacant hallways of a high school that serve as a perfect physical reflection of how overwhelming interior loneliness can be. With such boldly-realized visuals like these, it’s no wonder I’m Thinking of Ending Things, much like that contemplative January night in my High School’s parking lot, gave me so much to chew on.