Thursday, September 10, 2020

Movie Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things

I'm Thinking of Ending Things ***** / *****
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman.
Written by: Charlie Kaufman based on the novel by Iain Reid.
Starring: Jessie Buckley (The Young Woman), Jesse Plemons (Jake), Toni Collette (Mother), David Thewlis (Father), Guy Boyd (Janitor).

If Adaptation proved anything, it’s that no matter what Charlie Kaufman writes, he is going to make it his own. That’s how you get an adaptation of a book about an eccentric orchid hunter, turned into a story about Kaufman struggling to adapt that book, inventing for himself a fictional twin brother, and a story of the author itself. No one else would adapt the book that way – and that’s why it’s brilliant. Kaufman does something similar with Ian Reid’s book I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Kaufman stays true – mostly – to the events in the book – which is about a young woman (Jessie Buckley) going on a long car trip to visit her new boyfriend’s parents, even as she is thinking of breaking up with him the whole time. So this isn’t a complete 180 like Adaptation was. But it’s also very clearly not a straight adaptation either. Kaufman gives the entire movie a surreal, almost dreamlike feeling that he slowly turns into a nightmare. The end of the book suggests another connection to Adaptation that I won’t reveal because it would give the game away – but Kaufman takes that and twists it as well. You cannot say that Kaufman didn’t adapt Reid’s novel – he very clearly did. But I’m having a tough time thinking of another example of a filmmaker staying so true to the events of a book, while also completely making it his own (maybe The Shining – but Kubrick changed a lot more about King’s novel than Kaufman does).

The car ride that opens the movie – and last for a good 30 minutes – feels deliberately interminable. As The Young Woman sits in the passenger seat, she is almost in her own world. We hear her thoughts – not just about breaking up with her new boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons) but on many other subjects as well. He keeps interrupting those thoughts with questions, queries, asides – an attempt to make conversation, and like the young woman herself, we constantly feel jerked out her head, and back to this very long, very cold, very snowy car ride.

Things get more unsettled once they are at the farm house. Jake’s parents – played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis – seem like typical, loving parents. A little old fashioned, and not quite with “it” – whatever that is. The mother waves from the window, but then doesn’t come down right away. Jake and The Young Woman go exploring – a traumatic experience from childhood is revealed. They will settle into dinner – and it’s, well strange. And there are other strange happenings as well – The Young Woman’s job and name doesn’t seem consistent from scene to scene – and she’s constantly getting phone calls. Her story about how she met Jake doesn’t completely add up. And why the hell does Kaufman keep cutting away to a high school janitor throughout?

There are, of course, answers to these questions – and Kaufman isn’t going to leave them dangling. His mind may not have the mathematical precision of Christopher Nolan’s, but his films usually do answer the questions they raise – even if they do so in odd ways, which it certainly does here. Yet, for a movie that is so surreal, so much about a mounting unease, that continually shifts under your feet every time you think you have a handle on things, Kaufman, as always, doesn’t take the easy way out on any of them. His characters, even when they seem to inconsistent in the details, are not merely just playthings for him. They have agency, even if they are trapped in this weird film. This is most true of The Young Woman – brilliantly played by Jessie Buckley, who is quickly becoming one of the best actresses around. It almost feels like the creator wants her to be one thing – but she keeps twisting, insisting that she is something else entirely – so much so that eventually the creator also has to admit it.

Buckley’s performance is clearly the best in the film – but that doesn’t mean Plemons, Collette and Thewlis are great as well. Plemons has become a perfect everyman actor – and he’s wonderful at the way he twists that when needed – like in Breaking Bad, where his character is clearly a bad guy, but doesn’t quite realize it – or why others may see him that way. Here, Jake isn’t evil – but there’s something just not quite right there – and Plemons plays it perfectly. Thewlis is just odd here – a seriously underrated actor, he was great in Kaufman’s Anomalisa, and you should see his weirdness in Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour just to see how different it is from the weirdness here. And Toni Collette continues her streak of great performances – where she very definitely makes choices and runs with them.

I find that this review I’m dancing around the ending – which is brilliant, because I want you see it without knowing is coming. Ultimately, Kaufman does answer the questions he is raising. But yet, I fear that saying that will make it sound like a M. Night Shyamalan movie, in which in the end, when all is revealed, you sit back and say “ah-ha”, like you’ve completed a puzzle, and can now put it away and never think of it again. Those type of twist ending are popular – and I think perhaps you could (rightly) accuse the book of being one of those. But in Kaufman’s film, the ending serves to deepen what we’ve seen before – yes, it resolves the “what the hell happened” of it all – but also makes you want to dive back in again, and see it from a different perspective. Because doing so will make it a different experience – perhaps a sadder one, but also perhaps a more profound one. Kaufman has always been good at that – seeming to make one thing, while he’s really making another. I know this is a movie that will frustrate as many as it beguiles – and others will think that the journey isn’t worth the destination. Fair enough. But for me, by the end, the film felt so deeply felt, so deeply personal, and – not quite knowing what this says about me – deeply relatable. If it’s not the best work of Kaufman’s writing or directing career – perhaps that’s just because of how strong most of his work is. It certainly is the year’s best film so far – and a masterwork.

No comments:

Post a Comment