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I'm Thinking of Ending Things
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by Peter Sobczynski

"It’s Not Your Fault. . ."
3 stars

A few weeks ago, I found myself watching “Wild at Heart,” David Lynch’s controversial orgy of sex, violence and snakeskin jackets that won the top prize at Cannes in 1990 but faced a more hostile reception when it went into general release. As it turns out, I have pretty much the same feelings towards it now that I first saw it 30 years ago. On the one hand, it is made with Lynch’s usual skill, the performances by Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as the lovers on the run and there are enough moments of erotic heat, splattery violence and oddball humor to keep it humming along throughout. At the same time, if I had to rank Lynch’s feature films, I would probably have to put it last—yes, even behind his largely misbegotten adaptation of “Dune” (1984), which at least had some astonishing moments of visual grandeur going for it—because it was the first and only time that he seemed to be consciously catering to expectations of what a David Lynch film should be. The weirdo touches and outre moments felt forced and even the good parts had more than a whiff of the familiar about them. Again, it isn’t a bad movie per se but it is the one that feels more like an offering from a Lynch fanatic replicating the greatest hits than something new and truly inventive.

As it turns out, I encountered many of these exact same feelings while watching “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of the acclaimed Iain Reid novel, and not just because both films essentially take their central characters on a road trip to Hell, albeit a far more frigid one that the overheated world that Lynch presented. His screenplays for “Being John Malkovich” (1999), “Adaptation” (2002) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” announced him as the most distinctive screenwriting voice in American cinema since Quentin Tarantino and when he expanded to directing with the staggeringly ambitious works “Synecdoche, New York” (2008) and “Anomalisa” (2015) showed that he was just as ambitious and audacious behind the camera as he was behind the keyboard. With those projects, he was clearly following his muse wherever it took him but no matter how wild the proceedings got, they were still anchored to real feelings and emotions and this is why they resonated so strongly with viewers. Here, he seems so consumed with giving viewers 100% pure and uncut Kaufman that it simply becomes exhausting after a while and not in the ways that he clearly intends. Remember the genius scene in “Being John Malkovich” where Malkovich enters the portal into his mind and finds a world where everyone looks exactly like him and can only say “Malkovich”? This film is more or less the same thing, only with Kaufman as the one essentially crawling up into his head, among other orifices, and coming away with precious little in the way of insight.

The film is essentially told in three sections and kicks off with the words “I’m thinking of ending things” being spoken by a character who goes unnamed throughout and who is referred to in the credits as “The Young Woman” (Jesse Buckley). We are clearly meant to think that she is considering suicide but no, it seems she is talking about her relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemons), her boyfriend of about seven weeks who is picking her up to take her on a car trip to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) on their rural Oklahoma farm one miserable winter’s day. This sequence runs a little over twenty minutes and it sort of encompasses everything that is right and wrong about the film. The sequence is formally inventive, beautifully acted by Buckley and Plemons as they engage in a low-key game of One-Upsmanship to see which one of them is more erudite and dialogue that makes the first meeting between Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh in “The Manchurian Candidate” seem straightforward and direct by comparison. The problem is that between the cramped setting and Kaufman’s deliberately dense and reference-heavy dialogue, the sequence is so exhausting that long before the two arrive at the farm, many viewers will find them thinking of ending things as well, or at least switching over to see what else Netflix has to offer.

Things do not improve once they arrive at their destination. After taking a tour of the bleak and frigid farm (complete with symbolic frozen animals), the young woman finally meets the parents and they prove to be suitably strange as well. Things get progressively weirder as Jake’s parents spend much of the dinnertime conversation undermining Jake’s intellectual sense of self and even the young woman begins to lord her superior intelligence over him. At the same time, she begins to experience strange things herself—Jake’s parents seem to randomly age about thirty years, she finds things in his childhood bedroom that mysteriously correlate with her own life and there is much tension when Jake’s mother asks her to put a shirt in the washing machine in the basement, an area Jake has told her not to enter. Finally, with the snow growing worse, she and Jake begin what proves to be an endless return trip that includes a brief stopover at an ice cream stand out of “Twin Peaks” before things get really strange as their tale begins to merge with that of a lonely school janitor (Guy Boyd) whom has previously popped up from time to time, most notably in a striking sequence in which he sits eating his lunch while watching the end of a dumb Hollywood rom-com that this film is meant to be the antithesis of in every way.

Throughout the film, Kaufman throws in any number of devices designed to deconstruct the narrative he is presenting before our eyes and to subvert the expected conventions of American cinema—everything from the sudden passage of time to shifts in perspective to a full-blown dance sequence towards the end that looks like what might have resulted if Jerome Robbins had decide to stage a ballet based upon the immortal MST3K favorite “Teenage Strangler.” The problem is that this time around, viewers familiar with his oeuvre will begin to get a warmed-over feeling from the material. Without giving too much away, the underlying themes regarding time, memory and toxic masculinity are ones that he has explored in far more convincing and interesting ways than he has done here, especially in his criminally underrated “Anomalisa.”. As for inevitable strange touches, ranging from the aforementioned dance number to a long bit in which the young woman offers an extended verbal denunciation of John Cassavetes’s “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974) that is taken entirely from Pauline Kael’s review, they feel more self-conscious than audacious, as if he put them in because he felt that viewers expected such things from him rather than because they fit in organically with what he was trying to get across.

And yet, as much as “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” fails to truly connect in terms of its big ideas and overriding themes, it still has a lot of things in it that are at least worth considering. As I stated before, the performances by Buckley and Plemons are strong throughout—even when the film starts to fold in on itself, they are still doing marvelously subtle work as they roll with the changes that the film has in store for them. During the opening driving sequence, Kaufman expertly depicts the subtle tension of a couple going through the motions long after at least one of them has essentially given up in ways that will definitely resonate with anyone who has ever been in a similar situation. He also knows how to generate an enormous amount of tension and dread amidst all the weirdness—the scene at the ice cream shop alone packs more genuine creepiness into a few short minutes than most of the straightforward genre films that I have seen recently.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is not a bad film by any means and I certainly would not want to discourage anyone from seeing it for themselves. If it had been made by any number of other filmmakers, newcomers and veterans alike, there is a pretty good chance that I might have responded to it a little more favorably. However, the film finds Kaufman having another go at concepts that he has already presented to brilliant effect in his other works and watching him straining to top himself eventually becomes a dispiriting and weirdly hermetic experience that leaves nothing for viewers to contemplate on their own. The fact that I failed to respond to this film does no in any way lessen my belief that he is one of the most unique and talented voice in contemporary American cinema. (Trust me, a hack would never have dreamed of doing anything like this.) It just means that years from now when museums and revival houses are doing Charlie Kaufman career retrospectives years from now, this is the one that one can easily skip in order to get a snack and some fresh air.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33754&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/02/20 05:30:23
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USA
  04-Sep-2020 (R)

UK
  N/A

Australia
  04-Sep-2020




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