The Student
Review
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
by Zac Draysey, 30/09/20

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Who knew meeting the parents could go so wrong?

Like all of Charlie Kaufman’s films, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is bleak, intricate, and impenetrable. Kaufman has been known for his acclaimed screenwriting since the late ’90s, though he only began his directing career in 2008 with Synecdoche, New York. While his latest film deals with similar themes of identity, time, and ageing, things are different now. I’m Thinking of Ending Things approaches these topics in a much more brutal and unforgiving way. The grandeur of Synecdoche, New York has been stripped back. This new film contains much fewer, and perhaps more mundane, locations and characters. Despite this, I’m Thinking of Ending Things lives up to Kaufman’s previous work as a powerful, and often bewildering, meditation on art, relationships, and existential dread.


The film is, superficially, about a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who drives through a blizzard with her new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents for the first time. This is intercut with apparently unrelated scenes of a school caretaker going about his day. As the film develops things become increasingly strange: small inconsistencies build up, time begins to slip, and the film takes on a dream-like quality. It is here that one of the most obvious merits of the film appears: Buckley’s performance. While other actors may have leaned too much into the oddness of the film, Buckley gives a strikingly real take on what is an intensely surreal script. The result is that the audience is paradoxically compelled to believe in the character more and more as the world of the film, and the character’s place in it, becomes gradually less believable. This is particularly impressive as, unlike other films centred around the conceit that everything could be a dream or fantasy, I’m Thinking of Ending Things decentralises the source of the illusion: it is made clear that the dream Buckley’s character is in is not her own.


The film can perhaps be seen as primarily concerned with time. It proposes the idea, expressed quite explicitly at one point, that we should stop seeing ourselves as active agents, projecting ourselves into the future, and should instead view ourselves as passive receivers of time. Time is something that happens to us, something cruel that overpowers us and is impossible to resist. In this way it is important to note that Buckley’s character is both largely passive in the story and is the only main character not to be seen at multiple points in their life. She is placed within a delirious flux of time jumps and characters ageing and de-ageing, while powerless to influence how things progress.


In another sense the film is a commentary on the way we are shaped by the art and literature we consume. It explores how media, ironically including film itself, can force ideas and identities upon someone from the outside, making them less of their own person in the process. Buckley’s character repeatedly takes credit for pieces of art or poetry that she later finds out are not her own. The car scenes which dominate the film are full of conversations in which Jake and the young woman seem to speak entirely in references to the work of others, never having any ideas of their own.
The result of both of these themes is a deep sense of unease and confusion. It is not a film for everyone. Those who have not liked Kaufman’s previous films will not be won over by I’m Thinking of Ending Things, while Kaufman fans will likely find more to love about it on every watch.

Image Credit: Famartin via Wikimedia Commons