I'm Thinking of Ending Things is Unmistakably Charlie Kaufman
Much of the joy of film criticism — and the beauty, in the case of critics far more skilled than I — lies in the unpacking of the objective and the subjective. There’s the technical element, an analytic exercise born of some level of formal or informal study through which the critic (a term I use here to mean anyone interested in having a nuanced conversation about film, professionally or otherwise) deconstructs the filmmaking process itself: camerawork, editing, mixing, acting, etc. But though the two are necessarily intertwined, these technical aspects can be separated in one’s mind from an emotional and intellectual response to the movie. A wonderful attribute of film (and really, of any art form) is that no two people are going to have the exact same subjective understanding — though you and your friend or partner or colleague could potentially both agree on the precision of a film’s editing, the likelihood that the rhythms created by the precision affected you in equal manner is much lower.
Films are personal, both to those who create them and those who see them; we all have our own experiences, our own baggage, and we bring that to either side of the product, shaping it in a way that is unique to our individual journeys and perspectives. Have you ever loved a movie that it seems like everyone else hated? One where you couldn’t argue against the technical critiques, but defended because something about it was so deeply resonant? It’s part of the power of the movies, attaching ourselves to certain works of art not to be contrarian, but because of how it truly made us feel.
There’s a flip side to this feeling, however, one that explains why it has taken me so long to mention I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Context on the subjective movie experience is important, because while I generally think that Charlie Kaufman is a technically proficient writer and director, and I can objectively understand why his films provoke strong, positive emotions from so many people, I simply cannot get on his wavelength. And lest you think I go into a Kaufman movie primed to dislike it, I can assure you that’s not the case — if you love movies, why would you ever hope a film is bad? I don’t want to sit down, cross my arms, and wait for the director to prove me wrong; I want to go in excitedly, hoping that this time something will click that hasn’t before — sometimes it does! I had pretty much given up on Wes Anderson before I finally went back to Rushmore. I was mostly out on Kaufman and then I was all in on Being John Malkovich. In one of the strangest years — film or otherwise — we’ve ever had, I was very much looking forward to I’m Thinking of Ending Things, hoping he and I would be back on the same page.
For the first hour or so, I thought this would be the case. Playing on the fringes of horror, Kaufman balances an atmosphere of deep unease with the sort of melancholic yet near-absurdist humor in which he excels. As both a writer and director, he’s helped immensely by his cast — David Thewlis returns to the fold after a starring voice performance in Anomalisa, while Jesse Plemons and Toni Collette are, unsurprisingly, able to meld their unique energies with Kaufman’s particular sensibilities. But the standout is Jessie Buckley, who continues to exhibit a versatility and emotional expressiveness that should make her a consistent headliner for years to come. It’s Buckley who grounds the whole endeavor; who makes you want to keep watching even if you’re questioning the directions being taken. If anything, the film’s biggest flaw is its decision to expand the focus beyond her character — the others, especially Plemons, more than hold their own, but there’s a spark missing when Buckley becomes a spoke instead of the hub.
Unfortunately for me — but perhaps fortunately for many of you reading this! — the film twists and turns and unmistakably becomes a Kaufman product in all the ways that seemingly prevent me from connecting with his work. An oblique sort of introspection takes center stage, often in unexpected and creative ways, but by this point the train has left the station and — much as I wish I were — I’m not on it. For those who love Kaufman though, I expect I’m Thinking of Ending Things will hit home; in many ways it feels like a companion piece to his Synecdoche, New York in the ways it considers mortality and a life well-led. And for those who haven’t been exposed to his work, give it a try, you may find it right up your alley! As for me, I suppose I’ll just have to wait for the next go-round, hoping that this time, it’ll all fall into place.