Since the beginning of the shutdown caused by COVID-19, I have been sitting, scrolling, sleeping, reading or consuming other media. In a time of civic unrest and social idleness, most of us have been filling a friend-shaped gap in our lives with massive amounts of media consumption. Director and writer Charlie Kaufman hit many collective emotions right on the head with his latest film, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” such as loneliness, misdirected anger and acute anxiety. In true Kaufman style, this film, which debuted on Netflix on Sept. 4, engages in a philosophical conversation about the ways we choose, and choose not, to communicate with each other. Much like this pandemic, I can truly say that “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is unlike anything I have ever experienced.
Kaufman is best known for writing the screenplays for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich,” both of which are movies that in some way or another take place within the mind of a character. His latest release is no different; in fact, it is arguably his most metaphysical work yet.
The film begins with a familiar storyline: Lucy (Jessie Buckley) is getting ready to meet her boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) family. As she stands outside in the snow, waiting for him to arrive, she has many thoughts in quick succession. She admits that though she has a special connection with Jake, she’s “thinking of ending things.” Right before Jake pulls up to the house, we are introduced to an older man gazing out of a window and presumably looking at Lucy — though he will appear throughout the film, his relation to our two protagonists is heavily obscured.
Much of the film takes place on the car ride out into the country to meet Jake’s parents and the car ride back to the city later that night. Kaufman very carefully recreates the feeling of sitting in a car next to someone and knowing that you would rather be left with your thoughts than fill the space with conversation. Much of the dialogue between the two characters consists of direct quotes from William Wordsworth’s poems, David Foster Wallace’s essays, film critics, songs and commercials. The only narrative that is untouched by pop-culture references is the one within Lucy’s mind. For Jake, there seems to be almost no attachment to reality, and he has no way to relate to Lucy other than by referencing the words or work of others.
As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that neither Lucy nor Jake are reliable characters. The story of how they met is told several times within the movie, and it morphs into several narratives, none of which can be identified as the truth. Though the audience is invited into the mind of Lucy with many internal dialogues and wrestling of her thoughts, the question of who she is and what she believes about herself becomes increasingly indeterminate. She begins to merge with the overbearing and sensitive Jake, and it becomes almost impossible to decipher where she ends and he begins.
In one of the most striking sequences of the film, Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) are introduced, and the two couples have a very strange dinner. His parents randomly age, getting younger and older again as they leave and re-enter rooms of Jake’s childhood house. What is most peculiar about this dinner is how calml Lucy is; she does not have any intense reactions to the unexplainable and odd behavior of Jake or his parents during the visit.
There is so much more that could be written about this movie, but much of what I could say would be better left for you to discover. Much like Lucy, I was taken for a ride to the middle of nowhere and left with my own jumbled thoughts. In an interview with The New York Times, Plemons thought back to a moment during the filming of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” when someone asked Kaufman what the movie was about and he responded by saying that he did not know.
“Charlie kind of arrived at saying, ‘I think we just have to accept that we don’t know, and just accept that we’re going to fail sometimes,” Plemons said. “We have to embrace that.’”
Truth be told, the same can be said about our current situation. We are living through a global pandemic and witnessing the devastating wreckage of state-wide fires. We are just as confused and unsettled now as this movie made me feel then.