Culture

Charlie Kaufman's 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' Is Essential Watching for 2020

Ageing, regret, the passage of time: all the big themes of life (and this year) are in his new Netflix adaptation.
04 September 2020, 8:45am
Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Jessie Buckley as Young Woman in Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020
Jessie Buckley in I'm Thinking Of Ending Things. Photo: Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

I seem to say the same thing to everyone I get into it with: it just feels unfair that during 2020, the ghost year, we have to keep ageing.

I can’t help thinking that whoever deals with these things should really be kind enough to give us all a year off, or at least a do-over, in a sort of exchange for everything lost. How can it be that it feels so much like life has stopped – families and friends unseen for months, opportunities rescinded, momentum dammed – when really every moment has kept on happening, just like always?

As a meditation on getting older and the many lives we each could have had, I’m thinking of ending things – the new movie by Charlie Kaufman, out today on Netflix – doesn’t necessarily have an answer to that question, but it does explore the sensations and emotions inherent to the realisation that whatever happens, life does just go on.

Kaufman is the person behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, and others. His catalogue is consistently existentially confrontational, and I’m thinking of ending things, which is based on Iain Reid’s 2016 novel of the same title, takes the same approach, diving headfirst into its themes via a car journey taken by Lucy and Jake – played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons – a new couple driving to meet his parents.

Lucy isn’t sure about the relationship, and the film takes its title from a refrain that pinballs around her narration – though every time she says to herself that she is “thinking of ending things,” she gets distracted. There’s always something new to consider, as she careens through the film and its series of locations and concerns.

Lucy’s distractions are just one of the hundreds of ways in which Kaufman examines stuff like staying in situations that don’t satisfy us because they’re easy, and finding yourself in the same place 20 years down the line, even though that was never what you actually wanted. The film’s special touch is that though it addresses some of humanity’s biggest, most universal concerns, it makes suggestions rather than statements, honouring the largesse rather than trying to make a defining statement on it. Its brushstrokes are impressionistic, rather than begging to be deciphered in any way other than what they mean to an individual viewer at the time.

Even the film’s structure, which centres on a journey where home is never reached, feels almost vignette-like, each set piece a variation on the film’s main ideas about ageing and regret. Kaufman uses the specific feeling of the passage of time on a road trip – the circular conversations, the still air, the sense that you might never arrive, the occasional beauty, and ultimately, the knowledge that when it’s over it’ll have felt like no time at all – as a foil to the movie’s other, less naturalistic sequences: a tumble through a possible future at Jake’s parents’ farmhouse (they are played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, managing to be both creepy and deeply sympathetic), an unsettling warning at an ice cream shop during a blizzard, and a final encounter at Jake’s old high school, where it’s suggested that his present-day self also works.

Both Buckley and Plemons perform with an underlying melancholy that feels natural and recognisable. Their particular emotional language – understated, and for the most part unshowy – isn’t usually the stuff of movies, and through a number of intentionally jarring musical or dance interjections (as well as an especially funny send-up of schlocky romantic comedies), Kaufman seems to suggest that despite all of its time hops and Lynchian uncanny – the final scene is reminiscent of a similar moment in Mulholland Drive – his film is actually much more truthful than others which may be more linear, but which are also dishonest about the realities of life and love.

Time, this film acknowledges, goes on. There’s acceptance of that, and of the loss it can entail, but also a thread of hope. Throughout I’m thinking of ending things, the circumstances that Lucy states for and about herself are always changing – she needs to get home because she has to write an essay for university; next time she says it, it’s because she has to go to work. She’s a shifting thing, she isn’t fixed. There are times when she absorbs parts of Jake’s life and story – an exaggerated version of the ways in which we sometimes do that during relationships – but there are others when her story is her own, and is multiplicitous in its evolving possibilities.

At a time like the one we’ve collectively lived through, it’s important to accept that life continues, and to ask how we can manoeuvre within its new parameters. Even in our new circumstances, and even though ageing and regret and time passing are inevitable, there are still a million paths we could each go down. I’m thinking of ending things is a good reminder of that.

I’m thinking of ending things is available to stream on Netflix now.