'I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS' (NETFLIX)
Nowadays, certain films and series are called "mind-bending," which in general refers to works in which the narrative takes a turn for the surreal in a way that winds in and out of straightforward plotting, often leaving viewers wondering what actually happened. In the olden days, we called this an "art film," and the sections that veered from linear storytelling were understood to be dominated by metaphor. In a way the term "mind-bending" is a functional signpost that the viewer might have to think about the work long after it is finished, and that a reading built upon a non-representational structure — that is, depiction means what it shows on the surface and no consideration is given to what underlies it — is bound to be unsatisfying to a viewer.
Charlie Kaufman has built a career on this type of work, whether he's merely written the screenplay or he's directed the film, and "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" operates like a final argument in how he has done this. In basic terms, this is a movie about a dating couple visiting the man's parents in the middle of a snowstorm, but Kaufman pays as much attention to what lurks behind the scenario, including what's within the couples' minds, that something much larger is unleashed.
Roughly two-thirds of the film are spent in the car with the couple — Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons are both superb — with a middle section of the film devoted to the awkward visit, in which the source of the man's psychological wounds are laid bare for the audience. The visit turns into a subtle sparring match between the woman and the parents — David Thewlis and Toni Collette, also in excellent form — in which any stated achievement by the woman is countered by the parents with an example of their son's own experience in the same area, but with the vicious bite of pointing out his failure in it. Whereas Buckley began the film as the center of the narrative, she slowly becomes engulfed by the enormity of baggage that her reserved and, at moments nearly-catatonic in emotional terms, boyfriend brings to the relationship.
Kaufman routinely deals with the concept of reality as subjective and the universe as being determined by what's inside a person's mind, and as such — along with some discussion of quantum physics as part of the conversation in the film — just as all conceived realities exist, any given interpretation of Kaufman's work is equally as valid as any other. The uncertainty of ever finding one answer to this giant puzzle Kaufman has laid out might be frustrating to some viewers, but it's integral to the power of the best art, the ability to own your view of what it is along with the moments where you are severely challenged to defend what you perceive (this is best dramatized by an angry recitation of a Pauline Kael review of the film "A Woman Under The Influence" that's just a part of the couple's car-trip conversation).
So, is this a film about a man's inadequacy and the way society structures women's lives to become fortifications for their ego? Maybe. Or is it about the impossibility of a woman to be seen on her own terms in contrast to a male partner? Perhaps. It might be about a dynamic within couples for one partner to be engulfed by the enormity of the other partner's baggage. Or maybe it is about the inadequacy of any person to live up to the intellectual and creative influences one absorbs in life. What about the idea that it's the pattern of our dysfunction that is the constant throughout life and the people we are dysfunctional with are purely coincidental and interchangeable? Perhaps it's just about the damage that parents unknowingly do to their children as the most potent thing passed through the generations.
Knowing Kaufman, it's all of the above and none of the above at the same time. One thing is for certain though — "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is a gift of contemplation in film form, a survey of factors and impressions and many things that can't entirely be put into words that makes a person human in the 21st century and how we face those things in ourselves even as we work to avoid them in a constant tug of war within.
John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me.