Duplicity and Interiority in I'm Thinking of Ending Things
With a perceptivity for life as a series of ephemeral collisions and psychological impressions, Charlie Kaufman's filmography tempts endless analyses. His latest and highly anticipated directorial feature I'm Thinking of Ending Things, based on Iain Reid's novel of the same title, follows Lucy (Jessie Buckley) as she accompanies her new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to his parent's remote farm, except, as every media outlet synopsis has plainly observed, things start to happen — to say the least.
Except, even that isn't entirely true. Things happen inasmuch as Jake's psyche is narratively pieced together, the incidents that occur are all based on truths, but their realism is totally obscured. In fact, to decode this film by its events contradicts its inherently "interior" subjectivity. Not everything needs to make sense but everything does need to connect, and it does.
One theory of the film is that Jake never met his girlfriend. He saw her across the room of a bar, the same bar that she recalls in the story of their meeting. Except, in actuality, Jake never goes up to her. He overhears her and begins to construct a person from whatever he's hearing: her job, her accent, her name. All of her is conjured from a fleeting, precarious context. Thus, as the film progresses, and her clothes alter in colour and she ventriloquises Bonedog by Eva HD and Pauline Kael’s infamous criticism of A Woman Under the Influence, she is merely doubling Jake's thoughts and ideas. She is embodying, affirming even, his own knowledge. He feels smart with this girl because she is a funnel of his own knowledge; an extension of himself. When Lucy is "the expert on cinema", he is self-complimenting, and Kaufman is parodying his own placement in Jake's cinematically contrived interiority. She isn't real, but, of course, by the film's nature and to Kaufman’s own amusement, neither is Jake.
Representing both a vessel of dead time and metaphoric limbo, the film's car scenes, described by some as painfully drawn-out, are such an enduring length because Jake requires an abundance of space to execute the projected conversations onto his apparition. He needs the time to flatter his own ego and intimate to himself that he is an understanding boyfriend donning an intelligent girlfriend, no matter her area of study, which changes during each invisible cycle of dialogue. Inevitably, of course, Jake runs out of material. His mind casts back to other objects which could fill the gaps, hence the eventual introduction of a second actress. These scenes, arduous though they may be, come to represent the gaping orifice in his mind wherein he can comfortably envision a life he didn't quite manage to accomplish.
Moreover, the titular monologue at the start of the film, heard and intercepted by Jake, carries a far more sombre meaning. These thoughts are his, channelled through Lucy to mean one thing, then something else altogether for himself. By duplicitously employing a cliche, romantic 'thought' - as we know from the same monologue, you can't fake a thought - he refers to the actual process of 'ending things' he will later endure, suicide by freezing to death in his truck.
This is all a purported theory, yet the characterisation of Jake's parents fit into the same system. When Jake and the girlfriend go inside an initially empty house, we see, for the first time, Jake's own self-awareness. His parents are not there because inasmuch as this 'present' is actually a memory that never strictly occurred, at least like this, it has conflated with the knowledge that his parents are now dead. His disparate memories of the same house, one that represents a sense of self-criticism for its remoteness and rurality, overlap and cut into each other. Therefore, when his mother Suzie (Toni Collette) is waving out at the window before they enter the house for a comically long duration, matched only by the family dog's shaking, this is another misplaced memory. It doesn't quite fit into the fabric of the rest of the memories that furnish these scenes. And it is the oscillating presence and absence of his parents, in a house frozen in childhood, which comes to highlight its desolate incongruence and Jake's visceral dissatisfaction with his upbringing.
One of the recognisably Kaufman-esque elements of the film is its visualisation of ageing. The unmentioned, mobilised bandaids on the forehead of Jake's father (David Thewlis), paired with the legible and drastic ageing of his mother, are a sad condensation of Jake's experience of his parents. Cinematically so, Jake only possesses a mere scene’s worth of recollection to conjure any given age of his parents, so they inevitably rapidly grow old as they exhaust in his memory. We are introduced to Jake's parents as caricatures, laden with eccentricities and hammy performativity, and this is because they’re a product of Jake's life-long perspective of them, melded into one unnatural depiction. Thus it is even more devastating that Jake comes to terms with the death of his parents by immortalising them as decaying, half-versions of themselves. After all, it is these moments, vivid in their despondency, that constitute their lasting impression. In their dying vivacity, they overwrite the less coherent, affected versions of their younger selves. Thus, retroactively, when they are all sat around the dinner table, his parent's eccentricities are Jake's attempt to invigorate his memory of them, and how accurate this sentimental representation is, is beside the point.
Predicated by the knowledge that he was a “diligent” and ultimately friendless child, Jake and Lucy stop off at the fictional ice cream parlour Tulsey Town for those ridiculous 32 oz oreo-brrs, in order for Jake to initiate a confrontation with students from his school. As Kaufman has said, this part of the film is “a dreamy stop into his psyche, into his past.” Except, faced with this encounter, Jake turns away, pleading for Lucy to do the interacting for him. It seems that even in his remotest ideations he cannot muster the courage to confront the figures of his past.
When we arrive at the final scene, preceded by the visually idyllic partnership of the ballet dancers, Kaufman offers a sad and perplexing moment of awareness for the viewer. Standing before an audience with pantomimic, silent film era makeup, we come to terms with Jake's incapability to authentically age and therefore emulate his peers. We are pulled into the throes of the tragicomic; a reconciliation of high school anguish with a later, more courageous chronicle of his life. And it is through the optic of self-acceptance that we come to recognise Jake's failure to navigate the memories of his life in such a way that isn't doused in alternate, duplicitous versions.
Jake’s memories, deeply inflected by his desires and regrets, coalesce as a kind of subjectivity rarely seen on film. The result, as a whole, is a tremendously self-aware insight into several of Kaufman’s most treasured subjects: the shifting and ultimately illegible versions of ourselves and others, the veneer that distinguishes our experience from the rest of the world, as mediated through obscured and fragmented recollections of our interactivity.
Whereas Synecdoche, New York resonates warmth and generates emotional compatibility between the characters and the audience, this snow-swamped mystery is ice cold, in such a way that jolts its audience to hyper-awareness. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman’s use of the film medium to communicate his philosophical ideas, especially of self-preservation and awareness, is utterly refined. Each visual cue that indicates something meta builds towards a whole, dizzying amalgamation of interiority. Even when I felt detached from several stretches of its run time, I was always eventually pulled back, and this motion of being sucked back into the blizzard of clues was incredibly stirring and satisfying.
Kaufman’s updated “break-up movie” (though this title hideously undermines the weight of this film) was always going to be dense, and though some people will strive to do so, I think to understand every detail of this film would be beside the point. It’s an experience, a feeling; an insight into one version, one story of how memories deteriorate and sink into our mind as distortions. For Lucy, Louise, Jake, or whatever you want to call the conscious centre of this film, there are no authentic vantage points for seeing others, or yourself. They are all just empty reflections, collapsing into one.