By Jessica Tandi
There is a specific type of film, which appears to remain nameless, that you understand will be noteworthy from the moment you begin watching it. This particular breed of film is unique in that, whether or not you end up actually enjoying it, at the very least you will be able to appreciate something about it. You can tell from the very start that you will be impacted by it; in its wake, you will be left with your perspective expanded.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what about these films notates their importance to us. Perhaps it is not just one thing, but a collection of things that, when presented together, indicate that we should pay attention to the piece as a whole. There are certainly other films that do not fall into this category but are still enjoyable, important, or a mixture of the two, and find themselves with a relatively charming place in our collective consciousness.
Films like “Stoker,” “The Hours,” and , “Hereditary,” however, strike us from the outset. They demand undivided attention out of even the most distracted among us, and receive it. The curious thing about these films is that they span the genres: drama, horror, comedy, you name it, and it’s represented. Sometimes you aren’t even quite sure where they fall until you’re halfway through them.
“I’m thinking of ending things” is just such a film. Whether or not you are familiar with Charlie Kaufman, and thus are primed from the start to expect the weird and wonderful, there are enough overt clues in the opening stretches of the film to indicate to the viewer that one should expect the unexpected, and pay close attention to the details.
It begins with the voice of a woman (Jessie Buckley), who tells us that she is thinking of ending things. There is no specificity to her words at first, nor clues to signify what, precisely, she is thinking of ending. She ruminates on this possibility as the camera pans around a house; at first, just walls, then, furnishings, then rooms. Just little brief, subtle, sly glimpses into the life of this house as our narrator explains that she will be visiting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. There might be a subtle nod to “The Yellow Wallpaper” between the woman’s sombre soliloquy and the fact that the first few shots are of actual, literal wallpaper. In any case, the story opens with all the indications that it’s going to be a female-centric piece, but ultimately reveals itself to be something else entirely.
“Whether or not you are familiar with Charlie Kaufman, and thus are primed from the start to expect the weird and wonderful, there are enough overt clues in the opening stretches of the film to indicate to the viewer that one should expect the unexpected.”
Eventually, the camera leaves the house and pans to reveal the face of the voice, a woman of perhaps thirty, with distinctive curly red hair and a bright smile, bundled in a bright orange jacket and clamouring into her boyfriend’s car. Even in these first few minutes, there are what appear to be errors of either continuity or our heroine’s sanity. She reflects on how well suited they are for each other, and then immediately jumps to how she’s thinking of ending the relationship. Stranger still, she greets her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), with a bright smile and seems genuinely pleased to see him, but seconds later she is sitting miserably quiet and irritated by his very presence in the car. All of this is interposed with the morning activities of an elderly gentlemen who seems to be entirely unrelated to the couple, but somehow still significant to their story.
Many things are revealed in the banter between the woman and her boyfriend on the way to his parents’ house. We learn that the woman may be named Lucy, but that she’s also just received a call from someone named Lucy, and also that she seems to be having trouble remembering things lately. Jake, on the other hand, admits to a love for musicals when a song from Oklahoma comes over the car stereo, and we are presented with a brief flash of the elderly gentleman from earlier, whom we can now see is a janitor, watching a rehearsal for a high school production of the same song.
By the time the couple arrives at the farmhouse where Jake’s parents live, their conversation is clipped and abrupt. Whatever warmth was present in the opening moments is gone, and there is a true discomfort permeating their time together. That, coupled with Jake’s insistence that they take a tour of the farm in the middle of a snowstorm, leaves us feeling a little uneasy about where all of this is going. Just seconds later, the woman stumbles upon the bodies of a few lambs, frozen in the snow, and offers us something for our malaise to cling to.
Then, we are let in on a glimpse of Jake’s life on the farm. There is a dark patch in the old pig pen, and Jake tells us a morbid little tale about how that dark patch came to be, which prompts his companion to muse a bit about life:
“Everything has to die. That’s the truth. One likes to think that there is always hope. That you can live above death. And it’s a uniquely human fantasy that things will get better, born perhaps of the uniquely human understanding that things will not. There’s no way to know for certain. But I suspect humans are the only animals that know the inevitability of their own deaths. Other animals live in the present. Humans cannot, so they invented hope.”
Something feels wrong at the house, once they enter it. Jake’s parents aren’t immediately present, and he seems very unwilling to let his girlfriend near the basement door, which just so happens to be covered in scratches. By the time the older couple (Toni Collette, David Thewlis) finally descend from the stairs, Jake is noticeably uncomfortable, and his girlfriend seems more excited to spend time with his family than he does.
“If you manage to make it past the imperfect adaptation, and can put the puzzle pieces together, you are left with something very interesting to unpack and muse on.”
At dinner, Jake loses his cool, but she saves the evening by recounting the humorous tale of their meeting, and that is where the trappings of normalcy fade completely into the background for the rest of the film, and its true nature is revealed along with all of the layers of meaning behind it.
There will inevitably be those who find the ending of this film unsatisfying, confusing, or even exasperating. The novel it is based on is much clearer in its reveal. Much like in “Fight Club”, the nature of the plot-twist was very much married to its original form. Certain alterations were necessary for a transfer of medium- from book to film- and a lot was lost in the move.
However, if you manage to make it past the imperfect adaptation, and can put the puzzle pieces together, you are left with something very interesting to unpack and muse on. Certainly, the cursory nature of their relationship, her boldness, his distaste for it, her unfixed persona, and the shifting point of view all make excellent fodder for a discussion on Manic Pixie Dream Girls and gender theory, but Charlie Kaufman is also telling a larger story here; A story about life, a story about hope, a story about dreams, and what they do to people when they go unfulfilled. Of course, the ending is unsatisfying- if you think the goal of this film is that you should know what happens to “Lucy” and Jake. If, however, you are open to the film telling a larger story, then you just might be in luck.