On Film

Pandemic Cinema


Amy Woodbury Tease

          Cerebral is a word often used to describe Charlie Kaufman’s work, from his award-winning screenplays (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich, among others) to his directorial style (Synecdoche, New York; Anomalisa). I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the most recent film from the writer-director, and while it can certainly be situated within the familiar, psychological landscapes of his other films, it also feels somewhat estranged from them; it is darker in spots, like the underbelly of a David Lynchian suburb. As in the earlier films, Kaufman’s characters are ordinary people, but they speak the extraordinary language of philosophers, poets, and physicists. The main characters in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, for example, cite lines (often without attribution) from Eva H.D., William Wordsworth, Pauline Kael, and David Foster Wallace, not to mention the myriad references to critics, artists, and filmmakers embedded within the mise-en-scene. And then, of course, there’s the seemingly inexplicable intrusion of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!— but I’ll come back to that later. If Kaufman’s latest feels quintessentially “on brand” on its surface, there is something beneath it (or maybe it’s inside of it) that gnaws on us and makes this film feel different and decidedly more devastating than its predecessors.
          Here’s what I think that something is: I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a pandemic film. It is a claustrophobic, vertiginous meditation on solitude, disconnection, and aging that eerily reflects our contemporary moment of global crisis. Released on Netflix in September 2020 in the midst of quarantines, travel bans, and unprecedented loss resulting from the worldwide spread of COVID-19, Kaufman’s film, like its audience, hovers within the purgatorial state of its time, waiting for some relief to arrive. The interiority of the film—provided by a narrator who is “thinking of ending things"—reflects the collective feelings of isolation and alienation that have emerged out of the pandemic. The narrator’s thoughts are offered to us in monotone voiceovers, sometimes layered on top of open or empty landscapes (a stretch of highway clouded by snow that stretches endlessly forward and back; lengthy high school corridors lined with lockers; an abandoned swingset; a giant parking lot with a single truck, no driver) and other times glossing over a conversation, melancholic sidenotes tinged with nostalgia and loaded with uncertainty, ending in ellipses. (Anyway…). While preserving the tension and tone of its pre-pandemic counterpart—the best-selling thriller from Canadian writer Iain Reid by the same title—Kaufman’s adaptation allows for more ambiguity than the novel and even a bit of spectacle, making it uniquely his own but also, ours.
          The narrator of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a young woman named Lucy, or Lucia, or Louisa, or Yvonne – she is referred to by different names at different points in the narrative—who likely doesn’t exist (another sign that you’re watching a Kaufman film). This woman is listed in the credits as "Young Woman” mirroring Reid’s unnamed narrator. So let’s just call her that. “I’m thinking of ending things,” the Young Woman confesses in the opening monologue. She repeats this phrase like a mantra, reflecting a state of in-betweenness that drives the film’s perpetual uncertainty: she’s thinking of ending things, but has not (yet?) ended them. The line is delivered in voiceover before we even see the Young Woman’s face. In her place, Kaufman offers up a series of images from an old farmhouse, located in the middle of anywhere America: wallpaper in dated, floral prints; chewed up dog toys and bones; tchotchkes; curtains blowing into abandoned rooms; a wheelchair; a framed print of Casper David Friedrich’s “The Wanderer above Sea and Fog”; a staircase, dusty. This is a collection of remains, the things we leave behind. We soon learn (or perhaps the Young Woman remembers?) that these are images from Jake’s childhood home, the boyfriend that our narrator is thinking of ending things with, played by a stoic Jesse Plemons. The Young Woman is also played by a Jessie—an awkwardly mesmerizing Jessie Buckley (another Kaufman trope: doubling), who we finally see standing in the lightly falling snow, waiting for him.
          As the Young Woman contemplates the unstable status of her relationship with Jake, she is road-tripping with him through a snowstorm to meet his parents for the first time. Their conversation meanders around until it eventually lands on the subject of viruses (the Young Woman seems to know a thing or two about rabies). “Viruses are monstrous,” says Jake matter-of-factly from the driver’s seat, looking ahead into the snow that falls around them, threatening the visibility of the landscape (the couple also moves in and out of focus, as the camera is often positioned on the outside looking in and the windows are streaked with snow and dirt). The Young Woman is quick to respond in defense of the virus: “everything wants to live, Jake. Viruses are just one more example of everything.” In fact, she continues, “even fake crappy movie ideas want to live, like they grow in your brain, replacing real ideas.” The emergence of the virus only twenty minutes into the film is an intrusion that resituates it—for contemporary viewers—as a product of the pandemic. Importantly, this is also a self-referential moment, common in Kaufman’s work, in which the film establishes itself as a cinematic carrier of the stuff that viruses are made of—a parasite “changing us into itself.” (This reference comes up again on the return trip when the couple is unpacking Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle). This is all to say that what we learn very early on is that this film will not provide us with an escape from our pandemic realities. Rather, it works to infect us, containing us within its insular frame. We find ourselves in another one of Kaufman’s defamiliarized worlds, relating to the Young Woman’s unrelenting experience of uncertainty as she thinks about ending things.
          If we take the Young Woman’s word for it, the connection between viruses and everything else, including humanity, is the inherent desire—or drive—to survive. Kaufman makes this survival mechanism visible as he simultaneously challenges it through an unstable narrative that fights to move forward while always looking back. (“There’s never a way back” the Young Woman will think to herself on the car ride home, an insight that references both her habit of looking over her shoulder and the failure of the film to return us to the comfort and closure of a pre-pandemic state). “I’m thinking of ending things,” she repeats upon arrival at Jake’s childhood home. Despite the darkness outside, Jake insists on giving her a tour of the farm before they go in. They find that some of the lambs have died, lying frozen and abandoned in the snow outside the barn. Jake shares a horror story about how the pigs are also dead, put down after being eaten alive by maggots, victims of the brutality of farm life. Thinking about dead things prompts the Young Woman to philosophize: “One likes to think that there is always hope,” she muses, again in voiceover, as she and Jake walk out of the barn towards the house, “it’s a uniquely human fantasy that things will get better, born perhaps of the uniquely human understanding that things will not.” She’s still thinking of ending things. But maybe there’s hope?
          The possibility of hope within the penetrating stuckness and repetition of the film is a bit dubious, but it might also be the thing that traps us into sticking it out to the end, awaiting its grand finale. There is a lot to get through before we get there, so I’ll stick to the highlights. Entering Jake’s house, we are transported to a space mundanely reminiscent of a “crappy” horror movie, complete with howling winds, a blizzard that threatens to trap the couple in a creepy farmhouse overnight, a forbidden basement filled with secrets from the past, mysterious phone calls, and a dissonant score underneath it all. It is quiet and cold when the couple enters the house. An old dog appears out of nowhere, damp and shaking. (I don’t think we see that dog again.) Jake’s parents—played by the equally brilliant and a little bit creepy Toni Collette and David Thewlis—finally come down from their bedroom and they all sit down to dinner. The conversation is friendly but strained. Jake becomes increasingly and visibly agitated. The Young Woman works to ease the tension and keep the mood light, sharing the story of how she and Jake met (unclear, as there are gaps and inconsistencies in the telling), as well as images of her landscape paintings (but wait – didn’t Jake say she was studying gerontology? Or quantum physics? Didn’t she recite a poem she was working on during the drive over?). As the developing storm outside threatens their plans to return home, things on the inside get even murkier. The film begins moving in and out of time. Jake’s parents fluctuate in age. His mother dies. The Young Woman descends into the basement to discover art that looks uncannily like her own. She wanders through other rooms of the house, finding herself adrift as she encounters the other characters at various stages of their lives, as if she had always been there (as if she always will be there). It is trippy and strange and destabilizing, reminding us of Joel’s attempts to hold on to Clementine as he erases her in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but without the pseudo-scientific explanation.
          Occasionally we shift into another setting entirely. In these scenes, spliced throughout the Young Woman’s narrative, we follow a high school janitor as he goes about his day, first at home and then at the school, at times breaking from his work mopping floors to watch the students rehearse for their production of Oklahoma!. Eventually, Jake and the Young Women wind up at that high school, wandering its empty hallways, in search of one another and of the man they think they caught spying on them making out in the car. How did they get there? It’s a good question, but not one that I’m not going to answer in this review. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything. She’s still thinking of ending things.
          Spoiler alert: she doesn’t end things. Or maybe she does. It depends on how you look at it. We’ll never really know because the anticipation of a proper ending to this narrative is perpetually stalled, delayed, and finally refused by Kaufman, who reimagines Reid’s conclusive ending— “No more thinking,” his narrator writes definitively in a suicide note. “I answered the question.” The final scene takes place on the set of Oklahoma! Jake takes the stage, his face caked in make-up to make him look older. Here he accepts the award of a lifetime. All of the characters are there to bear witness, plus an auditorium of others (his mother sits on the stage in a rocking chair, playing the role of Aunt Eller). They are also aged, applauding his accomplishments, which he attributes to “all of you” while looking at the Young Woman who smiles and nods. She has yielded the floor to him, and will initiate his standing ovation. In the novel it becomes evident that the Young Woman and Jake are the same person—a doubling that Kaufman embraces throughout the film in not-so-subtle ways (she recognizes his childhood photo as her own, for example; others I allude to in the opening). But the fact of the Young Woman’s (non-)existence is not confirmed until this moment, when Jake stands in front of his audience and belts the famous solo of Oklahoma!‘s unsympathetic villain, poor Jud Fry, the cattle hand, in a growly baritone: “It was all a pack o’ lies, I’m awake in a lonely room.” Jake’s awakening in this moment can certainly be read as suicide (Jud dies shortly after this in the musical, falling on his own knife).
          But I’m less interested in the closure that this reading might bring to the film than I am in the return that it invites. That line from “Lonely Room” brings us back to that moment in the car, early on in the film, right before the virus is introduced. The couple is talking about the movies. Jake admits that he watches too many, arguing that they “fill my brain with lies to pass the time, in a blink of an eye, and an eye blink in excruciatingly slow motion.” We have come full circle. Kaufman has tapped into the thing about his film that makes it of the pandemic. It is living in that space between reality and a horror movie, moving at an excruciatingly slow pace towards an unknowable end. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a tour de force of uncertainty, a pandemic film that leaves us neither hopeless nor hopeful, haunted, wide-eyed and dreaming simultaneously. How’s that for an ending?