This October, a close friend of mine kept telling me that I should watch I’m Thinking of Ending Things, that it was going to “change my life.” I was intrigued by such a bold statement, but keep in mind that this friend also told me things like “you should totally watch Grown Ups 2; Adam Sandler is so funny!” So, yes, I wasn’t entirely convinced about watching the film.
Plus the Netflix synopsis—which says something along the lines of “a woman goes with her boyfriend to his parents’ secluded farm, unaware that she intends to end their relationship.”— wasn’t very reassuring either. It sounded like some run-of-the-mill rom-com. The kind where you’d expect Patrick Dempsey to show up at any moment. But then curiosity got the best of me. I watched the flick, and it changed my life.
Admittedly, I had never seen any of director Charlie Kaufmann’s films before, so after watching this movie I decided to give his other works a shot, starting with Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa. While he’s mostly worked as a screenwriter, his directorial style is singular and superb. A common theme in his movies seems to be the escape from the mundane, as is the case in his latest offering. Kaufman is a filmmaker obsessed with creating meaning, but not outright explaining what that meaning is. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, there are a lot of questions that are presented to the audience, but no clear answers are given. In fact, I’d say that not even Kaufman has a clear idea of what everything means in this movie. This is a film version of a Rorschach test, where the characters are the inkblots that change depending on the viewer’s perception.
If you’ve ever been in a relationship that feels trapped, you’ll relate to the basic premise of this film, but don’t think that’s all the movie is about.
Indeed, we start with the couple on the aforementioned, seemingly mundane road trip, but as the story progresses, things become more nebulous. Suddenly, reality and fiction become harder to discern, until there’s nothing left of the simple plot we were promised by the synopsis. By that point, I realized that this is more of a psychological horror movie than a rom-com. right.
Kaufman doesn’t waste time in pretentious meanings behind his images. Sure, the film might have a certain “avant-garde” pomposity at times, but it never revels in its own genius, like so many obnoxious indie films like to do. It’s like Sigmund Freud once said: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
American novelist James Baldwin said that “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” With this film, Kaufman evaded the muddy explanations and shoddy allegories that are found by the dozen in indie features. There are questions, but the answers are a completely different thing that is not for Kaufman to expose.
For example, at the start of the film, I thought that the main theme of the story would be “separation” or “stagnation.” Knowing this, I began looking everywhere for analogies that would reinforce those themes (like scissors or a bucket of frozen water). My effort soon proved to be for nothing. The film, I later realized, is actually a representation of many elements of the human psyche, and not just about a couple breaking up.
In fact, many times throughout the movie when the woman says she’s thinking of ending things, the phrase could be interpreted in a darker tone. Maybe she’s not thinking about ending her relationship, maybe she’s thinking of ending her life, or ending someone else’s; nothing is crystal clear in this film.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is filmed like a horror film where nothing scary happens. It simply touches your own fears and insecurities and brings you face to face with things that you’d rather not remember. It’s an exploration of the recesses of our mind, both the good and the bad.
The movie begins in a normal town, full of people that are unaware of the protagonists’ existence. As we move on, other characters disappear, and we are left only with the main cast, alone in a dream world, far from the mundane. This oniric realm, much like every psyche, has its happy moments, and its painful memories.
It’s undeniable that the movie is highly experimental: you won’t find a discernible plot amongst the multitude of creative elements of the film, and that might not be for everyone. It’s okay to dislike this movie, especially if you prefer your films to have clear and concise plots.
So, before I finish this entry, I’d like to thank my friend once again for recommending me this movie. It might not be as funny as Adam Sandler, and maybe “changed my life,” is a bit of an overstatement, but it certainly made me perceive movies in a different light.
We lose so much time assigning meaning to seemingly random occurrences, and try to impose our meaning over other people’s realities. Yet what is true and meaningful for some, might not be as real and significant to others. If I’m Thinking of Ending Things taught me anything, it’s that there’s a multitude of answers hidden in the questions and that it’s up to our own understanding, and no one else’s, to give meaning to our realities.