Director: Charlie Kaufman
Stars: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, David Thewlis
I get anxious when I have to go home to see family. It’s only a 10 mile trip, thereabouts, but it takes a lot to go and I feel bad that that’s the case. Seeing family makes me feel infantilised in ways that frustrate and confound me. I’ve frozen them in time and they, in turn, have done the same to me. We play our parts as though forever continuing some specific but forgotten day from years – decades – past. But all of the time between our reunions keeps changing us. Every return feels a little harder to fit into the roles we’ve somehow conditioned ourselves to perpetuate. So each time it feels a little harder. There’s an undercurrent of tension. Quiet, but thrumming. A kind of long goodbye.
The other great long goodbye is, of course, death. Death, family and the strangeness of time passing – or standing still – are central concerns in the stunning, mesmeric, frustrating third feature from Charlie Kaufman. Though based on another’s source text (Iain Reid’s book of the same name), Kaufman’s film bares his own innate idiosyncrasies. It’s deeply neurotic, maddeningly layered, entirely melancholic.
This is also the second new film in as many weeks to approach the passage of time from a dizzying vantage. But where Christopher Nolan’s temporal anxiety translated into bombastic espionage adventure, Kaufman has made more of an existential horror film.
Jessie Buckley is The Young Woman (nameless, just as John David Washington’s Protagonist was!). She is on a road trip with her new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his folks out at the farm where he grew up. Her thoughts run-on in voice-over narration, and occasionally we get the worrying sensation that Jake can hear them too. She’s thinking of ending things… but the thought itself is eerily unfinished. Does she mean their burgeoning relationship (this seems to be the case)… or her own life? If it’s the latter we’re talking about the extermination of self; something all the more dangerous if your own definitions are already starting to fray…
By the time the two of them arrive at the family farm some 20 minutes later, I’m Thinking of Ending Things has already begun to feel slippery. Something is wrong. With memory. With time. Is the family dog dead or alive? How long have they been there? How long have they known each other? We’re so used to measuring our experiences and our histories against time that losing these certainties makes us feel rudderless and afraid. This is how The Young Woman starts to feel – and the audience by proxy. It’s an acute recreation of the low-key panic I go through when I’m simply going home. A mood conjured.
Jake’s parents are played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, meaning each compass point of the dinner table features some mighty fine talent. Collette appears to be leaning hard into her hysterical matriarch persona made famous in Hereditary. It’s heightened, insane. In keeping with this, Kaufman and his editor Robert Frazen amp up the cutting. The film feels like its flinching. And Jake flinches, also. Kaufman uses the pace of the scene to reflect his character’s flighty defensiveness. It’s perhaps the first time that the emotional heart of the piece moves from Buckley to Plemons, but it won’t be the last. As The Young Woman sees herself in a childhood photo of Jake we start to wonder… could they be the same person?
There’s no easy answer here as I’m Thinking of Ending Things gets more obtuse (and a little self-satisfied) as things progress. A later car scene sees The Young Woman’s personality completely obliterated as Buckley takes on the persona of film critic Pauline Kael in a densely articulated take-down of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence (you might want to watch that one before tackling this scene). Later again, bluntly, Kaufman dares to make Buckley interchangeable with another actor who fills her spot. Plemons, too…
What we’re perhaps witnessing here is a neurotic completely dispersing their sense of self, examining and re-examining every atom and every moment of themselves until they are completely separated out. I’m Thinking of Ending Things might be what happens if you were to put someone’s soul through a sieve. Time is just a part of it. In this respect it feels like a companion piece to Synecdoche, New York. Can a film be the dream of another film?
And yet, Kaufman makes it compelling and fleetingly beautiful. Early on, in the extended car scene that establishes the movie, Jake’s love of musicals is seeded. The film’s climax is like a kind of eerie Kubrickian musical, blending the moods felt at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey when astronaut Dave Bowman journeys into his own decrepitude and that of The Shining when the camera finds Jack Torrance frozen not just in the winter snows outside the Overlook Hotel, but also in the July 4th photograph hanging in the hotel lobby.
That sense of warped time and timelessness is exceedingly potent in the countryside and, as I’ve found, in family visits. Kaufman’s film is a darkened snowglobe of what it feels like when I go home. Of what it feels like to live in the moment but also in a memory. It is beautifully made and – thanks to Buckley and Plemons – beautifully carried.
Nolan’s temporal apocalypse was all wheels and gears. Kaufman’s is a trembling, fractured heart. I know which I felt more.