“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”
This is a proverb quoted early on in Charlie Kaufman’s arresting and poignant new film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which spends most of its time under a flurry of snowfall. We’re not quite sure what the sin is. All we know is that the snow is inescapable, and things, fittingly, aren’t as they seem. Or are they?
“I’m thinking of ending things,” the protagonist (Jessie Buckley) tells us at the film’s opening. Said in a voice that doesn’t seem like it belongs to her: a curious mix of whispering and vocal fry. She repeats this statement, her thoughts tessellating over faded cuts of wallpaper and shaded interiors. Her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons), is a dull mansplainer. The type who likes to say “look it up” instead of engaging in a conversation he might not confidently dominate. He’s someone fulfilled by intellectually sparring with those around him, but enraged by those he perceives as not being able to keep up. A Catch-22. As a character, he already doesn’t make sense.
The pair are off to meet Jake’s parents on an isolated farm. Łukasz Żal’s cinematography is so bleak and blurred we can hardly make out the lines of the couple’s faces as they travel through this literal and metaphorical snowstorm. We think we might be getting a haunted house, but that doesn’t really end up being the case. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a horror film with no jump scares, no villain. And yet I watched it with a thudding heart, frozen still and transfixed like sleep paralysis, as Kaufman slowly twisted the knife into my side.
Jake’s parents, playing by David Thewlis and Toni Collette, unnerve and disarm with their odd mannerisms. Their smiles are too big and their laughs are too loud. Conversations with them are mazes with dead ends. Characters tic and stutter their way through half-abandoned anecdotes with words that nobody understands. The father navigates scenes with the glassy look of a lobotomy victim, while the food the mother has prepared looks positively Victorian: congealed pork, jellied desserts. An unnatural shine, as putridly unappealing as the grin plastered on her animated face.
We meet a dog named Jimmy, but then we find Jimmy’s ashes in an urn minutes later. The mother leaves the room, and when she returns I could swear that her teeth are more yellow. A picture of the protagonist imperceptibly becomes a photo of Jake… you think. With each morbid turn, you feel like Kaufman is gaslighting you.
At first, we think the protagonist is just as confused as we are. We picture her as the girl in the Andrew Wyeth painting ‘Christina’s World’, a painting the foursome discuss over dinner. Here, a girl gazes at a farmhouse in the distance, her head turned so we can’t see her expression. But Jessie Buckley’s chameleonic range constantly evades you; she plays this role like a sibylline heroine. Just as she can switch from tearful confusion to bellowing laughter in seconds, her identity keeps being reassigned to her. She’s a student writing a thesis on rabies, then a waitress and then something else. It’s all too much and nothing makes sense. Jay Wadley’s sound design is anxiety-inducing with constant noises of driving and wind, an unnerving metronome-like noise on a television.
The protagonist and Jake inhabit bodies which don’t seem to belong to them. They tell stories that contradict ones told five minutes ago. Everyone keeps calling the protagonist a different name and she can’t seem to remember what her own name is. So it feels somewhat natural for the two to constantly speak others’ words. The protagonist talks at length about the movie Woman Under the Influence, but everything she says is a verbatim copy of film critic Pauline Kael’s review. Jake also quotes David Foster Wallace’s essay “E. Unibis Pluram”: “when we’re talking about television, the combination of sheer audience size and quiet psychic intercourse between images and oglers starts a cycle that both enhances pretty images’ appeal and erodes us viewers’ own security in the face of gazes.”
The mention of Wallace is interesting here. The writer’s legacy is one continuously in flux, with many positing him as a poster boy for a depressed MTV generation. Others praise his pursuit of a return to earnestness: a state of ‘post-irony.’ Kaufman appears ascribed to this latter school of thought with I’m Thinking Of Ending Things. Though Jake’s ostensible criticism of the role of art and phonyism is clear throughout, the film’s ending marks a sort of cellophane-crackle disregard of any kind of ‘cool’ existentialism. Jake likes to be the cleverest person in the room, to be validated and talk in needlessly convoluted neologism. However, he understands little of what the protagonist says to him. It’s unclear, just like Wallace’s writing, whether the film is meant to be existential or hopeful. I don’t think we’re meant to know.
It’s not out of character for Kaufman to lead us down a sodden road of existential strife, before kicking us out of the car and expecting us to just find our own way home. “What,” he seems to chuckle, “were you expecting a return journey, a neat conclusion?” I’m Thinking Of Ending Things requires further watches to spot the clues about how to navigate our way through the snowstorm. What odd beings humans are. How futile it is trying to understand them.
Words by Steph Green
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