i'm thinking of ending things
During one of the lengthy road-trip D&Ms (all told, you'll be thinking of spending approximately 45 minutes of the total duration inside a car), the lenses through which we observe Charlie Kaufman's latest rumination on the human experience, Jake (Jesse Plemons) and a Young Woman whose name may or may not be Lucy (Jessie Buckley), briefly discuss the likelihood of surviving a jump from a moving train. To be perfectly honest, I found this hypothetical situation to be somewhat analogous to the experience of watching i'm thinking of ending things (an adaptation of Iain's Reid's 2016 novel). I was absolutely along for the ride for the first two-thirds of the film, not entirely sure where we were heading, but confident enough with my own cognitive interpretation to stay onboard. At some point, though, I lost control of the wheel and ultimately decided to jump off, and now I'm earnestly not certain whether I survived or not. And yes, I know I mixed a car metaphor in there, but this is a Kaufman film, so a train can be both a train and a car and neither a train nor a car. Plus, there's a really great dance sequence and a criminal waste of what appears to be a jumbo version of an Oreo McFlurry. Anyway, I have no idea what this movie is about.
It is not the intention of the ramblings above to convey a dislike for this film. I am a self-identifying impostor in the world of film and TV criticism, but, while there is a lot I don't understand about Kaufman's surrealism (I haven't seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind recently enough to be able to remember a single thing about it), I found myself mostly taken with the endearingly bizarre bait-and-switch tactics used throughout. On the surface, the story is simple. Jake takes his new girlfriend Maybe-Lucy to meet his parents in rural Oklahoma in the midst of a worsening snowstorm, but the whole affair is tinged with the knowledge that she, as the title suggests, is thinking of ending things. That's it.
Imagine my surprise, however, to realise that, not only would Tenet not be the most confusing film I'd see this year, but that it would also not be the only one to tell its story using many seemingly simultaneous timelines. During their visit, Jake's parents (played by an effortlessly unhinged Toni Collette and just-creepy-enough David Thewlis) interchangeably appear as older and younger versions of themselves. The family border collie seems to get stuck in a time rut when he shakes his coat. The film is interspersed with scenes of a lonely school janitor that may or may not be in the present or the future or both but definitely not the past but maybe the past as well or maybe even all three of them together. Then there's a fictional Robert Zemeckis film (that provides one of a surprising many laugh-out-loud moments) which is fleetingly suggested as being VERY IMPORTANT and then never mentioned again. And don't even get me started on the maggot-infested pig. (Also, if you're jokingly wondering whether there are references to the musical Oklahoma! in this surreal film set in Oklahoma, well why not indeed? I did mention a dance sequence, after all.)
Forgive my facetiousness. Surrealism across all art-forms is just not a comfortable place for me. I think there are some valuable discussions about life and existence, and specifically about abstract concepts like the power of an idea and the rarity of true originality, that this film will prompt. In fact, one of Buckley's many incredibly effective voice-overs at the halfway point of the film, where she quotes Oscar Wilde quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, stuck with me until the final credits.
"'Nothing is more rare in any man,' says Emerson, 'than an act of his own.' And it's quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives are mimicry, their passions a quotation."
I don't believe I'm the person to articulate too detailed an analysis on such philosophical ideas, but there is certainly a lot to admire about this film trying to unpack them from a technical and artistic perspective. The first of these is Buckley's aforementioned voice-overs, which are probably my favourite use of them in any film (yes, including the father of all voice-overs in The Shawshank Redemption). They are meticulously edited so that they fuse with the surrounding dialogue, sometimes making it difficult to discern whether the voice is in 'our' head or being spoken to another character. It's unnerving and an incredibly effective tone-setting device. There's also a stream-of-consciousness feel to it - the kind of incessant, unfiltered processing that loudly parades around your head when you're trying to sleep. It's sometimes almost that irritating, but it's done so well you end up just being impressed instead.
Kaufman's visual language also serves to jolly proceedings along that might have felt like a nonsensical chore in the hands of a director less confident with the style. The editing and framing of the car-ride sequences, constantly darting from the interior to outside (replete with unforgiving windscreen wiper screeches), make them an exercise in patience I ended up being quite happy to endure. It's like he's daring us to say, "when is something else going to happen?" Spending literally a third of the film inside a car that sometimes didn't even seem to be moving was a bold move, but one that was buoyed by Buckley's terrific performance and ably supported by Plemons in a typically brooding register.
Toni Collette does a lot with a relatively small amount of screen time, including a dinner scene as unenviable as the one in Hereditary. (Side note: I've discovered I have an irrational aversion to film and TV characters clearing the table after no one has eaten literally anything.) Collette is the queen of the laugh that would make every head in the room turn to see what on earth is making that noise. She manages to evoke sympathy for a character we know almost nothing about and the likes of whom we've probably never met (or at least not spent much time with). Her performance is one of the handful of genuine highlights, but this film belongs to Jessie Buckley. As both our narrator and anchor (now I'm adding a boat into the proverbial mix), she initially reacts as we do when reality starts to disintegrate, but manages to straddle the line between incredulity and resolve so confidently that we accept the goings-on longer than we might have with a lesser actress in the cockpit (just to complete the transportation quartet).
I fully acknowledge that the problematic final third of the film will be others' favourite fever dream; it's certainly a hit with critics. It's thematically jarring in a way that's unexpectedly bizarre, even for a film like this. That might be one of the dumbest sentences I've ever written, but I can only be honest. It's the section of the film that will see it hailed as revelatory by film professors and English teachers who love pausing random frames of Blade Runner and going "ooh, look at the TRIANGLES." And maybe it is - I genuinely don't know. If you want a bit of advanced warning, once you arrive at the high school, you're on your own.
If you've reached the end of this review with no more idea what this film is about than you did at the beginning, you've at least gone part of the way to understanding what it's like to actually watch it. Fans of Kaufman's previous films, lovers of surrealism and people willing to engage in robust discussion about the meaning of life will likely find some reward here, provided you're willing to do the work. However, if you find yourself thinking of ending things before you get to the closing credits, don't say I didn't warn you.
i'm thinking of ending things is streaming now on Netflix.
PS: the only way it seemed fair to rate this movie was to deduct stars for a proportionate amount of the film I didn't understand. This is the kind of film I would give either 2 or 5 stars on a different day, so take the rating with a pinch of salt.