By Peg Aloi
You may not know what you’re feeling or what to think about what you’ve seen afterward. This is a rare experience in cinema to be savored, or at the very least highly valued.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. (streaming on Netflix)
This is what you shall do. You will sit on your couch or your comfy chair, with your snacks and beverages nearby. Perhaps with a friend, partner or furry compatriot by your side. No devices, no distractions. This one, friends, may hit you hard. Especially if you’re in your 50s, or your 40s, or your 20s, or your 60s. It may hit you hard. You may not know what you’re feeling or what to think about what you’ve seen afterward. This is a rare experience in cinema to be savored, or at the very least highly valued.
Director and writer Charlie Kaufman is no stranger to probing the depths of emotions and urges that fill us with deep fear, shame, or longing. Stories of love gone bad that can never be forgotten (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), love that is mired in illusions (Anomalisa), a life filled with precocious ambition and wasted time (Synecdoche, New York), a life that isn’t what it seems to be on the surface (Being John Malkovich). Even when adapting other peoples’ work (Susan Orleans’s The Orchid Thief for Adaptation), Kaufman imbues his films with intricate neuroses and visionary cadences that feel both extremely personal and yet universally familiar. I find it’s very hard for me to watch his films more than once; their endings have left me breathless or groping for words.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, for which Kaufman wrote the screenplay based on Ian Reid’s novel, once again serves up a story that sees memory as a sort of filing system. The framework is prosaic: a young couple who met in graduate school are taking their relationship to the next level. Jake (Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons) is bringing his girlfriend Cindy (Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley, known only as “The Young Woman” in the credits) to meet his parents for dinner. It’s a snowy evening. Cindy lets us know early on, via voice-over, that she’s thinking of ending things. She doesn’t see a future with Jake. She finds him unknowable on many levels, and questions why she’s even dating him. But, out of politeness and a sense of duty, she decides to go through with the dinner.
The remote farmhouse is about an hour’s drive and the snowstorm keeps growing heavier. As Cindy reflects on her discomfort, she keeps glancing behind her and has odd flashes of memories, like déjà vu. She meets Jake’s parents (the always-wonderful Toni Collette and David Thewlis) and they’re polite but strange. They’re overjoyed Jake has “found someone,” intimating that he’s never really had a girlfriend before. Jake’s mood is quiet, though he has angry outbursts. Time starts to slip. We see Jake’s parents in varying stages of age and frailty, then see them young and spry in vintage fashions. Cindy’s voice-over muses on how we may not move through time; time, perhaps, moves through us. The meal looks delicious, yet the evening is interminable. Decades collapse into moments. Finally, the young couple decides to brave the snowstorm and drive back to the city.
They decide to get milkshakes on the way home, at a retro ice cream shop in the middle of nowhere, staffed by pretty girls Jake apparently knew in school: shallow, brittle, mean types. After the alluring but cloying sweetness of their dessert, they decide to visit the high school. This serves as another locus of the film’s odd memory kaleidoscope, and it is somehow more sinister than the farmhouse, even with its suggestions of encroaching mortality. This is a building that shapes our social personae, that prepares us to go out into the world as someone who was loved or shunned, respected or bullied. Jake, it becomes clear, had a hard time in school. We see an elderly janitor, polishing floors, obviously living a lonely life. The kind of man many of us may not have noticed when he worked alongside us during our drama-filled student days, caught up in our own tasks, our own alienation. Snippets of past productions of Oklahoma! begin to invade the narrative. And this musical turns out to be one of the film’s major thematic elements. This is a show just about every high school in America seems to perform on a rotating basis. The dream ballet is particularly revelatory: the young protagonists yearning for love. The social strata of our high school experiences can be viewed through our reactions to this musical: did you identify with Jud or Will? Was your first love like Curly and Laurie’s? Did you play Aunt Eller, or Ado Annie? (I played the latter; it was a good fit.) The musical’s 1980 revival on Broadway was, for me, a revelation of lush color and romance. Despite its anachronistic sensibility (which now seems corny and provincial) and often precious lyrics, this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic was considered revolutionary by many critics when it debuted. Now it is an inescapable cultural fossil.
This film also uses color to create layers of symbolic meaning, which is all the more interesting given that cinematographer Lukasz Zal is best known for photographing such black-and-white masterpieces as Ida and Cold War. But the color shifts here are not the somewhat arbitrary signposts — signaled by Clementine’s brightly dyed hair — that marked the timeline shifts in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another tale of love, loss, memory and regret. The color changes in I’m Thinking of Ending Things are more deliberate and mysterious. Cindy’s costumes in particular shift subtly and dramatically. She is first shown wearing a black and white floral print dress with a striped sweater over it: the garb of an artsy yet casual graduate student. At first, the sweater’s stripes are brown and pink; then they turn yellow and green. Later, she is shown wearing a pink coat which changes suddenly to bright blue with no explanation. There are also subtle shifts in her hair and jewelry that we are almost dared to notice. Similarly, her affect transforms along with her interests: her course of study in college keeps changing, moving from veterinary science to physics to poetry to cinema theory. She is brilliant, mercurial, hard to pin down: we understand why she doesn’t feel a spark with Jake. Up to this point, Buckley has only appeared in three films. This actress is capable of stunning depth; she has remarkable, chameleon-like star quality. She is a perfect foil to Plemons, whose physicality has a disquieting, dark heaviness.
There are clues: glimpses of bookshelves and Jake’s belongings in his childhood home. Dialogue riffs suggest Jake is attempting to mold this “young woman” into an idealized partner. They also call into question whether she exists at all. Her anonymity seems to hint at a generational struggle with maturity, with meeting expectations. Indeed, as the film continues, what at first seemed to be a story grounded in Cindy’s perspective shifts its focus to Jake’s interior journey. The color blue seems to be an important clue to the film’s central existential mystery. Cindy’s pink coat is replaced abruptly: her feminine energy overshadowed by Jake’s drab, predictable concerns. As we move closer to the dreamy ambiguous revelations of its ending, blue is everywhere: blue vehicles, blue lights in a snowstorm, blue lockers in the high school, a blue janitor’s uniform, and a blue glow of stage lights. This ubiquitous color is loaded with symbolic meaning, variously associated with innocence, truth, masculinity, honor, sadness, authority, and eternity. Its prevalence provokes and soothes even as it overwhelms this odd yet familiar story of how life slips through our fingers. How our lives so often feel like a sort of performance. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is nothing if not enigmatic. It is easy to read too much or too little into it. But coming up with an answer is besides the point: the film is deeply affecting. Some may find it hard to shake off, others may find themselves put off by it. I expect to be grappling with it for a long time to come.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.