A young woman is thinking of ending things. Which things? Well, 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 like competing Wikipedia articles going at it; acerbic conversation burrowing from one rabbit hole to the other. 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 nice, but intrusive. Their house is a mausoleum of missed opportunities and better days. She’s thinking of ending things.
Charlie Kaufman is possessed by time and our place in it. But more than time he thinks about memory. How we get lost in it, how we can’t trust it, yet form our entire selves around it. How memory is as elusive as time itself, yet contains within it a microcosm of reality. His previous film SYNECDOCHE, N.Y., was an elegy to the withering self as we come to terms with the fact that one day, eventually, no one will remember us. His latest one is all about the past we can’t seem to let go, and how such a memory anchors us into a fixed point in time, even as entropy sets in around us.
Eventually all linearity becomes meaningless as memory, fantasy, and regret meld into one. Thoughts pour out like a babbling brook, conversations start and stop at random, and love itself 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 or how they smelled like. 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 in the kind of way an anxious person is self-centered. It’s not malicious, but it is 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. Everything is thrown in at once and repeat viewings will provide different experiences. It’s Kaufman waving a Greek aphorism in your face which you emotionally recognize, even if you can’t read it.
The film is carried 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 especially are extraordinary in parts that require from them nothing less than the unraveling of personal identity throughout the ages. As they wander the house that seems to live a life of its own, they too take the shape and form of whoever they wished they could have been. Buckley is a revelation in her role which defies description. It would be fair that she’s everyone we’ve ever met, and all of the people we wish we could have been friends with. Plemons carries the torch of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman like a relay runner unaware of what race he’s a part of. It’s a part turned inwards, one that has a musical bursting inside of him, but lacks the grace and ability 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 own past she truly remembers. Kaufman sharply, even bluntly, observes that as we present our potential love interests to family, we agree to a certain narrative that must be upheld. A sort of reinvention of yourself that is more agreeable with the person you need to be in order to find love.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS will divide audiences. Probably more than any other Kaufman film to date. It’s very theatrical in the best kind of way, 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 wonder what kind of a life they’ll have. Only here it’s stretched out over the course of hours, days, and years. You come out on the other side in a state beyond nostalgia and melancholia.
It will also frustrate beyond comparison. It is a masterclass in unease. The constant cutting between space is designed to unnerve the viewer. Some shots seem to be designed to be symmetrical, while sometimes the camera just drifts away the same way we do when we want to emotionally escape a situation. There are threads that go nowhere. The overlapping dialog comes and goes without purpose. Arguments break out as people repeat themselves in hopes that what they thought was important is not just heard, but recognized. There is an endless feeling that you won’t leave a mark in this world. It’s a lot.
But that’s life.