By Andrew Harwood
What is life?
The question that has stumped freshman college students and ignited debates between scholars is just as prevalent now than ever. What is the purpose of working, studying, hanging out with friends and sleeping just to do it all over again the next day? As existential as it sounds, this is the perfect segway into our film for this week, Charlie Kaufman’s “i’m thinking of ending things.”
Based on the novel by Iain Reid, “i’m thinking of ending things” follows an unnamed woman who meets her boyfriend’s parents for the first time, all the while contemplating breaking things off with him.
Adapted for the screen and directed by Kaufman, the film slowly and certainly not smoothly becomes a hell of a lot more than what it advertises itself to be: an existential study of life and the regrets we all have.
Before I completely dive into this, I want to give a spoiler warning right away for anyone who has not seen the film. In no way do I aspire to spoil films for my audience, but as I hope you all can understand, it is merely impossible not to do so when discussing this film. Anyway, I digress.
The allure of “i’m thinking of ending things,” aside from brilliant performances by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, comes from Kaufman’s absurdist and slow cinema techniques. The very first shot of this film uses the infamous Kuleshov effect, a classic example of the power of editing. Unbeknown to a first-time viewer, this first sequence beholds a major secret to the entire film: pay attention.
As the film begins, we are led to believe that what we are about to watch is some sort of psychological analysis of relationships and life as we eagerly await the young woman’s arrival to her boyfriend’s parents’ house. A slow process, to say the least, the young woman and her boyfriend slowly discuss an array of topics while their journey is cut with images of a janitor working in a high school.
Ominous yet beautiful snow falls outside the car as the young woman recites a morbid poem about coming home for a visit — a mere set-up for her visit to her boyfriend’s home. From here, the film slowly starts to unravel into what it really is: the boyfriend’s older self, the janitor and his reminiscing of his past mistakes and regrets, all the while contemplating his own will of life.
But, just how exactly is this done?
As soon as the janitor comes on-screen, the viewer can immediately point to the physical similarity between the boyfriend Jake and the janitor. It isn’t until the girlfriend roams into the basement to do laundry where she suddenly finds some janitor uniforms in the washer that we fully realize the janitor is Jake. However, the mind-warping doesn’t stop here.
Soon enough, the girlfriend’s life comes crashing down: she’s called different names and changes clothes randomly while Jake’s parent’s age into dementia patients. We are attached to the young woman because we are her in the sense that we, too, don’t fully understand exactly what is going on, hence questioning everything we see.
As troubling and painful as the young woman’s experiences are, it doesn’t stop there. She and Jake leave the house and end up at Jake’s old high school, where we become introduced to an absolutely absurdist rendition of ballet and the young woman’s slow realization that she doesn’t exist.
Therein lies the brilliance in Kaufman’s film, as well as Reid’s novel: how they can lead the audience to believe that life as itself seems dull and bleak, only for it to disintegrate in front of our own eyes.
As mentioned before, we are attached to the young woman’s character the entire time because we are led to believe that she is the main character and experience exactly what she is at the same time. However, it isn’t until the final act of the film that we come to realize Jake is the central character — older Jake that is — who looks back on his mistakes and contemplates “ending things,” to stop his suffering.
To be blunt, I wasn’t a huge fan of this film after my first viewing. Simply put, I viewed it as an unsolved riddle of emotion and philosophy that somehow asked for more out of the viewer than the film.
My problem with the film is that as intricate and original as it is, it behaves in a way unlike any other film, to the point of utter discomfort. In no way do I think this is a bad film, because it isn’t. But, it is indeed a complicated dissection of life that places too much pressure on its audience.
Is this just a lackadaisical approach to viewing a film? I would argue not, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.