FIRST: a warning. If you’re “bobo”, don’t watch this film as you surely won’t understand it. Charlie Kaufman first gained fame as a screenwriter for such acclaimed films as “Being John Malkovich” in 1999 for which he got an Oscar nomination, “Adaptation” in 2002 for which got another Oscar nomination, and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in 2004 for which he finally won a best original screenplay Oscar.
His scripts can be described as imaginative, dense, experimental, definitely far from the conventions of mainstream Hollywood cinema, and if you’re the type who hates it when a movie makes you think, you will definitely not enjoy it.
The first movie he directed was “Synecdoche, New York” in 2008. He also directed “Anomalisa” in 2015, an animated film. He now comes up with “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, which is definitely an ambitious, mind-bending film. It’s hard to follow and open to different interpretations, but we think that’s really he’s goal: to confound the viewer.
It’s the type that critics will like but which ordinary viewers looking for simple escapist entertainment will find incomprehensible. Produced by Netflix, it’s obviously about the troubled mind of a character and he has filled it up with so many references about books and movies that it will take an expert in semiotics to make heads or tails of it all.
Based on the 2016 novel by Iain Reid, the film starts with Lucy (Jesse Buckley, “Wild Rose”) waiting for her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons, “Breaking Bad”) on a snowy afternoon. Lucy is the narrator but her name keeps on changing throughout the movie. Also her job, as she says she’s a poet, a painter, a physicist.
She declares that she’s thinking of ending things with her and Jake, who’s taking her to visit his parents in their farm in what becomes a very long, snowy drive. Since this is a Kaufman film, we’re sure he has taken a lot of liberties and made a lot of changes from the source material.
The film is overloaded with bits of information that come from Jake’s past and his fondness for books and movies. Those who want to take it seriously might want to have a second viewing for them to be able to fully absorb whatever the puzzle that it is would like to impart.
Lucy writes poems and she recites her work “Coming Home” (actually written by another poet) to Jake who then mentions Wadsworth’s book of poems, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality”. Part of the film’s conundrum is figuring out whether she’s a real person or just someone Jake fabricated from the books and movies that have shaped his own psyche, and some of which we ourselves personally are not familiar with.
In one scene, Lucy sees an old picture of Jake as a child and she comments that he looks like her. This concept of dual identities and dreamlike sequences have been done by Kaufman before in his past films, specially as a screenwriter. Ultimately, it dawns on us that the title refers more to Jake ending his own life.
In the film, we see an old janitor in Jake’s old high school popping up in several scenes. It’s intimated that he is an alter ego of Jake. It’s a storytelling technique that has been used before in movies with a similar twist like “Fight Club” with Brad Pitt, “Secret Window” with Johnny Depp and “Ruby Sparks” with Paul Dano.
There are many elements that can make you scratch your head, like the janitor watching a romance movie directed by Robert Zemeckis. Why the reference to the director “Back to the Future” and “Polar Express”? We don’t know. Maybe it’s just a whimsical choice?
In the dinner scene with Jake’s parents, Toni Colette and David Thewlis as the mom and dad go through a series of changes. They’re young, they get old, then they’re young again. Maybe it means that Jake is living through the various phases of his life with parents. And he just cannot reconcile the presence of his fictitious girlfriend with them so they eventually leave.
Back in the car, they get into a discussion of various things, with references to materials that are honestly alien to us, like Goethe’s theory of color, an essay by David Foster Walace and the philosophical work “The Society as the Spectacle” by Guy Debord.
These complicated ideas are all connected to Jake’s own preferences, specially their discussion about the review of critic Pauline Kael of the movie “Woman Under the Influence” starring Gena Rowlands. By this time, if you’re not literate enough to know about these references, you would have walked out of the theater.
But wait, there’s more. At one point, we see Jake and Lucy discussing the lyrics of the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. Throughout the film, we see the janitor watching students doing scenes from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical, “Oklahoma”. There’s even an entire sequence with the lead students dressed like Jake and Lucy dancing a ballet suite on the school’s corridor.
The movie’s final sequence shows Jake, now an old man, receiving a prize then singing “Lonely Room”, a song from “Oklahoma”, to an audience with people from his life all made up to look old. They then all give him a standing ovation.
Honestly, if you’re not a bonafide cineaste, the film’s lack of a clear structure and so many questions raised without any answer will be very frustrating. The film runs for 2 hours and 10 minutes and its undubitably complex symbolisms and surreal scenes will be a test of patience for the ordinary viewer. Kaufman obviously meant his film to be inscrutable.
This is definitely not a film that leaves you feeling good about the human condition. It’s more like self indulgence on the part of the filmmaker who wants to present us his own abstract nightmares.
Both Buckley and Plemons give splendid performances in their puzzling roles but the film is an unsolvable enigma that perhaps reflects mankind’s own lamentable existence, making it rather cumbersome to watch.