I’m Thinking of Ending Things: An Existentialist Ghost Train
She is thinking of ending things. What exactly she is thinking of ending is unclear – her relationship with boyfriend Jake? Her life? She is on a road trip with Jake to see his parents but needs to get back tonight because she has to work on her paper in the morning. What’s her paper on? Something veterinary, or perhaps it’s film studies, or perhaps it’s not actually a paper but a poem. Or maybe a painting.
She occupies a world halfway between the one we might recognise and one we most definitely don’t – its yawning chasm daring us to look down into scratch-covered cellars and empty rooms for some sort of explanation as to why multiple realities appear to be colliding at once. And that’s before she has to deal with meeting the parents – an ordeal even more awkward than we might usually expect.
This is a strange film that seems to exist in a perpetual state of non-existence. Or, to phrase it a bit more specifically, a film that never really appears to start. From the very beginning, there’s a perpetual sense of unease – an uncomfortable tugging at the fabric of reality that refuses to cease. Some of the signs are subtle, like the way in which Jake appears to register her thoughts although she does not speak them. Some of them are more obvious, like the way the dog endlessly shakes when it tries to dry off. But something is wrong, and we’re going to have to wade through 2 hours of something being wrong before we figure out what it is. In other words, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the cinematic equivalent of purgatory.
This is the sort of film that could only have been made on Netflix. It is ambitious and confusing – intentionally so – and disobeys narrative conventions at every turn (well, aside from the one that tells us things will get progressively worse as the story goes on). It is also disarmingly cheap, chugging along on a shoestring budget in a handful of nondescript locations. At times, it can be hard to tell if Netflix is killing-off the film industry or breathing life into its tired bones. Then again, Crosley does sponsor Record Store Day.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a less-annoying Kaufman film because Charlie Kaufman is less present. We’re used to his scripts casting people as nothing more than Kaufman stand-ins, simultaneously going on about how much self-hate they possess and how pathetic they feel whilst also proclaiming their own ultimate genius. That sort of complex is hideously annoying and arrogant and has become the staple of pseudo-intellectuals for years. But I’m Thinking of Ending Things largely avoids these delusions of grandeur in favour of something quieter and more universal. Of course, it’s unlikely that Iain Reid featured lengthy segments about Pauline Kael and the unreality of cinema in his novel, or that he could have penned a truly spectacular Robert Zemeckis joke that made me spit out my drink.
Kaufman does, it has to be said, bite off more than anyone can chew – either himself or us. His script can feel like a bombardment of existential questions that come so thick and fast they neither register as fully-formed ideas or allow us any time to think about them. One gets the sense that the director hasn’t experienced many of the emotions or quandaries he purports to explore, and as a result his writing can be shallow and forgettable – lacking the grounding needed to actually shake his audience and their foundations in reality. As an existentialist ghost train, I would have liked to have been scared a little more than I was. Rather than being dense and requiring multiple viewings, as several reviews have contended, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is actually a much shallower work than you might expect: a smorgasbord of identifiable and previously discussed existential paradoxes stuffed into a road trip for easy consumption.
But if the ideas are mostly trite and digestible, the script is startlingly sharp in delivering them. Lines cut like a knife through butter delivered in Jessie Buckley’s deliciously wry tone. There’s a lot to laugh at, and a lot to be creeped out by, and a lot to be perplexed by. At times, I’m Thinking of Ending Things can feel more like a Beckettian play than a cinematic work. I struggle to think of a film in recent memory that has been this dialogue-heavy, and has kept me absolutely transfixed for the entire runtime. Perhaps it has something to do with the acting – Toni Collette and David Thewlis turn in stellar performances – but this is 2 hours of dialogue that is a true pleasure to listen to.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things gains a lot of its mystique from the rather singular question of just what the fuck is actually going on. When the inevitable explanation comes, Kaufman may cloak it in a veil of mystique his source material lacks, but there’s no hiding that it’s a lazy and disappointing way to explain everything that we’ve seen up until that point. Still, it was never really about the destination, and when the journey is this interesting – this strange and provocative – you can’t help but be swept up by the madness and eloquence of it all.