A young woman is thinking of ending things. Many things. Whatever this is between her and her boyfriend, at least. They’ve been together for eight weeks now, but it feels longer than that. Yet they have no connection with one another. No spark. They’re competing Wikipedia articles going at it, their acerbic conversation burrowing from one rabbit hole to the next. He’s taking her to meet his parents, who live somewhere far enough that time itself becomes irrelevant. A snowstorm is coming. His parents are pleasant but intrusive. Their house is a mausoleum of missed opportunities and better days. She’s thinking of ending things.
Time vexes and possesses Charlie Kaufman. But more than time, he thinks about memory. How we lose ourselves to it, even as we can’t trust the personas we create. How memory is as elusive as time itself, yet contains within it a microcosm of reality. His previous film SYNECDOCHE, N.Y., is an elegy to the withering self. A story of how we come to terms with the fact that one day, eventually, no one will remember us. His latest is about the past we can’t let go, and how such heavy memories anchors us to a fixed point in time, even as entropy sets in.
Eventually, linearity becomes meaningless as memory, fantasy, and regret meld into one. Thoughts flow in freeform like a babbling brook; conversations start and stop at random. Love withers before our eyes until it suddenly, violently comes roaring back. Names change as we forget who we once loved, even as we vividly recall what they wore and how they smelled. In Kaufman’s mind, we can lose our own identity faster than we lose the fantasy of what we never had.
It sounds confusing, and for the most part, it is. This is a film that takes patience, understanding, and endless empathy. It’s self-centered the way someone with anxiety is self-centered; not malicious, but tiring. There’s a level of self-doubt and pity that goes from painfully sad to unbearably obnoxious. It’s like a blender for the soul.
The film rests on the shoulders of acting giants Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, and David Thewlis, each of whom is at their career-best. Buckley and Plemons are extraordinary in parts that require nothing less than the unraveling of personal identity throughout the ages. They wander through a house that takes shape and form of whoever they wish they could have been. Buckley is a revelation as the embodiment of every potential sweetheart and stranger we wish we could have been friends with. She shoulders the expectations of desperate love possible only to those who can’t express it.
Plemons carries the torch of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman like a relay runner. He, too, possesses the innate ability to convey charm in sorrow, and vice-versa. It’s a suffocating role, one complete with a musical bursting inside, but with the inability to express it.
“Memory isn’t objective,” Plemons opines as he and Buckley drive through a seemingly endless storm. If there’s a better mission statement for this film, I haven’t heard it. The further the couple gets on their odyssey into his past, the more she begins to realize how little of her history she remembers. Kaufman, sharply, even bluntly, observes that we agree to a specific narrative as we present our potential love interests to family. A sort of reinvention of yourself that is more agreeable with the person you need to be to find love.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS will divide audiences more than any other Kaufman film to date. It’s very theatrical in that it’s dense and literate with minimal fuss. Using minimal sets and cast, Kaufman still manages to create a sense that we’ve shared a life with everyone on screen. His tender screenplay captures the feeling you get where you know you won’t meet someone ever again, but find yourself wondering what kind of a life they’ll have. Only here, it stretches out over hours, days, and years. You come out on the other side in a state beyond nostalgia and melancholia.
It might also frustrate you beyond comparison. It is a masterclass in unease. Like how some shots seem to be symmetrical, while sometimes the camera just drifts away as it it, too, wants to escape emotionally. Some threads go nowhere. The overlapping dialog comes and goes without purpose. Arguments break out as people repeat themselves, hoping that someone will not just hear them, but recognize they matter.
There is a persistent feeling that you won’t leave a mark in this world.
But that’s life.