Wednesday 9 September 2020

Film Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (dir. Kaufman, 2020)


By turns passive and direct, open and opaque, poet, physicist, painter and Pauline Kael (!!!), Jessie Buckley's protean performance provides a fascinating, spiralling human centre to Charlie Kaufman's studiously brainy and beserk latest, I'm Thinking of Ending Things.

Those of us who saw Buckley's not-always-stellar work on the London stage some years ago (she was due to return to it this year in Romeo and Juliet with Josh O'Connor before Covid's intervention) would never have suspected the range of her skill and talent on film. But Beast (though overrated) tipped us off and Wild Rose (absolutely lovely) fully confirmed her potential as a major cinema actress. (Then there was the shrewd, watchful, sensitive quality she brought to her scenes in Judy; a perfectly modulated supporting performance.) As the great Steve Vineberg writes of her in Wild Rose: "Buckley has a fresh, totally unaffected camera presence and the instinct to hold the camera, sometimes for medium-long, pensive reaction takes that transport us directly into the character’s complicated feelings."

Buckley does that and a whole lot more in I'm Thinking of Ending Things, pulling us completely into the dilemma of a woman who is contemplating breaking up with Jake (Jesse Plemons), her boyfriend of six weeks (or is it longer ….?) even as she undertakes a road trip with him to meet his parents at their farmhouse for the first time. 

Adapting Iain Reid's acclaimed 2016 novel, Kaufman - who, as we're well aware, knows a thing or two about the problematics of adaptation - takes the text into areas that mesh with his own thematic concerns, in particular, issues of identity, ageing, and time, which gets fragmented and fractured from the pair's arrival at the farmhouse. Here wild temporal shifts, and Toni Collette and David Thewlis's ripe performances as Jake's parents, suggest Guess Who's Coming to Dinner filtered through the funny-sick existential domestic horror of mother!. 

The nightmarish family dinner party is a stage staple, of course. And in a period in which US cinema has lost (much to its detriment) the strong connections it once had to the stage, Kaufman remains one of the most theatrically-inclined of American writers and filmmakers. Part of the subversive quality of I'm Thinking of Ending Things is its bracing commitment to talk, with two long car journey discussions, superbly performed by Buckley and Plemons, constituting the bulk of the film.

While Kaufman's excellent Synecdoche, New York focused on a play going on for its creator's entire existence (and God knows, some can feel like they do), the new film might be viewed as riffing on general aspects of US theatre history, beginning as a vaguely Annie Baker-ish piece and circling back to climax with an elaborate Oklahoma! homage. (Did anyone really want to watch a - yikes - "dream ballet" when Oklahoma! came out? Does anyone really want to watch one in 2020? Well, Charlie's gonna make you.)  

Allusive to a fault, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is, in Roland Barthes's terms, "a tissue of quotations," incorporating citations from or nods to Eva H.D's poem "Bonedog," Guy Debord, Pauline Kael's great review of A Woman Under the Influence, Forget Paris (!), a (fake) Robert Zemeckis film, and much more. At its best the film achieves the kind of disorientation that Leos Carax did when dialogue from The Portrait of a Lady was suddenly woven into Holy Motors. At other times, - a too on-the-nose discussion of the sexual politics of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," for one - Kaufman appears to be grasping at anything to hand. (As one cynical wag nicely puts it: "I think we’ve reached peak Kaufman self-parody when characters who are the fantasy of a janitor argue about critical theory.")

Still, as a film that's very much about how the absorption of books, essays, films and musicals impacts upon one's perceptions, expectations and fantasies - about how layers of pop culture filter into the psyche - most of the inclusions can be justified. Where the film comes unstuck, for me, is in its incremental revelation of just whose fantasy we're in. Trevor Johnston remarks that it’s "refreshing to hear a female narrator" in Kaufman's work rather than the usual "guys [who] should just get over themselves and spare us the self-indulgence." Yet such a statement seems decidedly ironic when said female narrator's interior life and relationship doubts turn out to be merely the projected fears of a male character.

While the reveal doesn't negate the strength of Buckley's performance, it certainly proves detrimental to the emotional involvement created, yanking us into the consciousness of a figure in whom we're much less invested and turning the film into another extended act of male fantasising. 

The final 20 minutes are as ambitious in concept as they are disastrous in execution; with Buckley now relegated to the periphery, the spell is gone and involvement violated, with an animated talking piggy, an Oklahoma! interlude and an A Beautiful Mind homage the best that we are offered. From Łukasz Zal's excellent cinematography - so different from his studiedly artistic work for Pawlikowski -  to Buckley's great performance, to many memorable moments of unease, I'm Thinking of Ending Things has marvellous elements. It ranks, without a doubt, as one of the most distinctive American films of the year. Its impact is hampered by a frustrating conclusion that, at least as Kaufman has at once over-scaled and under-cooked it, ends up feeling a lot like a betrayal. Still, having just embarked on Antkind (I'm on page 11 and already laughed out loud three times) the movie clearly leaves me with the appetite for a further foray into Kaufman-land.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is in cinemas and on Netflix now. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this well-informed and helpful review. Agree that Jessie Buckley is outstanding and I also found the ending hugely annoying. Will definitely be back for future viewings...