Despite the fact that “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” feels like a film that is desperate to say something, my only real takeaway is that Toni Colette is a goddess and improves every movie she’s in.
I’m talking, of course, about the new Charlie Kaufman feature, the Netflix original film, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” What are things? It’s never specified. Maybe it’s a relationship, maybe it’s our protagonist’s life. It’s ambiguous, get over it.
The basic gist of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is not hard to follow. In fact it’s mundane in its simplicity. Our unnamed protagonist (Jessie Buckley) and her recent boyfriend Jake are on their first road trip in their relationship. They are on their way to visit Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) in rural Oklahoma. Along the way things aren’t always what they seem.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is the rare film where I like the middle part the most. Sandwiched between two uncomfortable and drizzly car rides, we visit the house of the parents of our unnamed protagonist’s boyfriend, Jake. Things aren’t as they seem, and as the film progresses, clothes change, hair changes and we see Jake’s parents at different stages of their lives (the old age makeup in this film deserves an Oscar!). The film becomes nearly gothic for about 45 minutes before we hit the road again. This section and the last 10 or so minutes are where the film really shines. The rest feels like we are travelling along with the characters on the world’s most boring car ride.
I don’t doubt that there is significant meaning in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” but whatever it is, it’s referential. During the two extended car-ride sequences, our two main characters speak in large swaths of reference. A two-minute monologue turns out to have been directly lifted from a Pauline Kael review. A poem called “Bone Dog” that was presented as Buckley’s character’s own words is later revealed to have been lifted from “Rotten Perfect Mouth” by Eva H.D.The film itself is not insignificantly based on a book of the same title. Kaufman spins around and around our attempt to communicate ourselves and the human condition through art. And again and again, these attempts in the film fall flat in a constructed way.
There’s a Vox article that floated around for a while after the release of the film that gave a “required watching list to look into before you saw the movie.” That is, our approach to this film is that it must be studied to be appreciated. The film itself references David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest,” a notoriously difficult and obtuse book to read. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” takes up after a postmodern tradition that encourages obfuscation for the viewer. But does that make it good? Is it only that which we struggle to understand, that which lacks immediate access, that should be praised?
I should say, I haven’t read the novel that the film is based on. Doing some peripheral scans on the Internet, I saw critics assert that it is in the change from book to film that gives the film meaning, that we must read between the lines of both to find Kaufman’s statement on art and relationships and whatnot. But at the end of the day, I wonder if it’s worth it to read. It feels like a tired trope, to make your reader study your work so as to further appreciate its greatness. What can I say? Maybe I just don’t get it.