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Five Cent Cine At Home: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

What needs ending?

A couple drives out of a city towards his rural boyhood home so she can meet his parents. He’s funny, not particularly good-looking, maybe not funny, apparently knowledgeable about musicals, maybe a poetry expert, maybe a physicist. She’s melancholy, thinking of ending the weeks’-old relationship (“things”), or she’s perky; she’s maybe a student, maybe a literary critic, maybe a gerontologist, maybe a poet, maybe a waitress. As in all things Charlie Kaufman, there’s no stable ground. The director and writer is as good as any contemporary filmmaker in exploring time, as he did in his Oscar-winning script for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), in which another young couple goes back to the beginning to erase their relationship.

In her voice-over that opens “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and often dominates it, the “young woman” (Jessie Buckley)—variously called Lucy, Lucia, Louisa, Ames (“Ames…Amy…Is that my name?”)—questions whether we travel through time, or whether time travels through us. While all the characters “travel through time”—moving back and forth among themselves at different ages—she is the real time traveler, and undisturbed by it.

Kaufman, whose script is based on a debut novel by Iain Reid, introduces elements of horror, almost all of which turn out to be whimpers rather than bangs. He employs genre standards such as an old farm house, dead animals, a basement one is warned not to go down into (2017’s “Get Out!” and 2019’s “Parasite”), a cackling mother (Toni Collette) seen through an upstairs window (“Psycho,” 1960), empty institutional rooms and halls (“The Shining,” 1980), an odd-looking and sexually-inappropriate father (David Thewlis), a car trapped in a snowstorm. Yet there’s no real horror in the film, except the horror of realizing the limits of one’s ability to shape one’s existence.

Long segments are in that car, so enveloped by the snowstorm that it’s afloat in space and time. The couple is both captured and limited—symbolic of their lives. At the same time, in that confined space, Jake (Jesse Plemons) and the “young woman” express their various beings, desires and fears, batting about ideas and quotations—often as if they were their own—from William Wordsworth to Pauline Kael (her acerbic review of John Cassavetes’ 1974 “A Woman Under the Influence”) to Guy Debord (on the meaning of the spectacle) to David Foster Wallace (on TV) to the latest #MeToo interpretation of the pop classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Is Kaufman being pretentious, playing to an in-crowd, limiting the viewers who will fully understand his script to those familiar with the plethora of authors cited and their works?

Long segments are in that car, so enveloped by the snowstorm that it’s afloat in space and time.

In spite of the couple spending almost all the 2-plus hours of screen time together, “I’m Thinking…” is about loneliness, the isolation of the individual, the near impossibility of relating to others, and the likelihood that life will not yield to one’s dreams. Jake, the young man (or not so young—has he celebrated his 50th birthday, as his mother says, or his 20th, as he corrects her?), is a depressed and sometimes confused man, who cannot realize his ambitions, an unhappy, single high-school janitor (Guy Boyd) who was bullied in that school and is still living with his parents. As a pig (!) tells him, “someone has to be the pig with maggots”; in other words, face up to the life you’ve been given, or, “it is what it is.”

With two superb principal actors in Buckley and Plemons, Kaufman inventively illustrates his exploration of existential angst not only through the words and ideas of erudite authors, a fabricated animated commercial for Tulsey Town (an ice cream shop), and an invented Robert Zemeckis (who wrote his own time travel script, “Back to the Future,” 1986) film clip that presents a parallel relationship born of chance and fate, but most effectively through reference to the 1943 musical, “Oklahoma!” It may take more than one viewing, or a post-screening discussion, to understand the mythic import of that production, which at first appears out of place with the faux horror film. But it’s there.

Date: 2020

Stars: 3.5

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, Guy Boyd, David Thewlis

Runtime: 134 minutes

I’m Thinking of Ending Things ★★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Availability: Streaming on Netflix only. See JustWatch here for any updated availability.

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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