I like to consider myself a snob when it comes to cinema. Not only do I think that I have impeccable taste in films and an affinity for deciphering even the most complicated of stories, I also insist upon referring to what some would call “movies” exclusively as “films.” However, Charlie Kaufman’s film, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which was released on Netflix in early September, challenged my status as a cinema snob and humbled me with its complexity.
The bare-bones version of the plot seems simple enough: A girlfriend and boyfriend travel through a snowstorm in order to visit the boyfriend’s childhood home so that the girlfriend can meet the parents. During the film’s exposition, we learn that the girlfriend is planning on ending her relationship with her significant other, constantly repeating the phrase, “I’m thinking of ending things” in her internal monologue, which acts as narration for the film. But with the very first utterance of this seminal phrase, we begin to see the cracks in the reality presented to us.
The first time the girlfriend thinks to herself about calling quits on their relationship, her boyfriend, Jake, asks her what she said. Although it originally comes off as a strange coincidence that he asked her what she said, since she had only been thinking the phrase rather than actually verbalizing it, it gradually begins to seem plausible that he can in fact hear her thoughts. As more evidence presents itself, it becomes clear that there is much more to the story than a simple plot summary would suggest.
Later in the film, we see several hints that all of the characters introduced are imagined. Without giving too much away in terms of plot, the narrator is perhaps one of the most unreliable that the time-tested film trope has ever seen. But the fact that she is the narrator, and thus the protagonist, makes the messaging of the film that much more nuanced.
The film picks apart the frequent tendency of male writers to depict a female love interest inaccurately. First of all, we never learn the girlfriend’s name, despite the fact that she’s the film’s main character. Jake refers to her by different names throughout the film, but he doesn’t even address her by any name at all until around an hour into the film. Then, there is the fact that her stated occupation changes constantly based on Jake’s interests at that particular moment. It seems that she has no true will of her own. Every single time she and Jake disagree on a course of action, she quickly submits to him and indulges his childish — and often unsettling — outbursts. Through these careful choices in writing and characterization, as well as the acting of Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, Kaufman illustrates how female love interests’ dreams, desires and personalities are often dictated within the frame of their onscreen significant others.
By disregarding the girlfriend’s personality and making the audience uncertain of her basic existence, Kaufman highlights how she was made to be a secondary character the minute she entered a relationship. Although she is the first voice that we hear, and the first primary character in the film that we see, she somehow becomes an accessory to the “real” story, which is experienced by Jake.
The amplification and exposure of the girlfriend trope was unfortunately the only thing that I truly enjoyed about this film. Despite being a self-proclaimed cinema snob, I still prefer films with clear meanings and stories over convoluted pieces that require multiple rewatches to have a glimmer of hope at understanding them. In my opinion, if you have to watch an explanation video on the film you just watched, the film was a waste of time. I watched about two videos, read three separate articles and a synopsis of the book that the film was based on and I’m still not even positive that I understood anything … but I’ll be damned if I watch that movie again.
Although I admired the overall direction, set design and cinematography (which to me was the most impressive aspect of the film and aided immensely in the telling of the story), I cannot say that I enjoyed the film. I understand that the film is purposefully confusing and layered on so many different levels that you’re not supposed to walk away from a viewing with all of your questions answered, but the feeling I walked away with was sheer bewilderment. I was genuinely uncomfortable the entire time I was watching.
My discomfort didn’t only stem from the fact that I was extremely confused for the majority of the film. It was also because no aspect of the film — the story, the characters, or the timeline — seemed concrete. It felt like I was traversing some labyrinth that an architect had forgotten to finish, leaving me trapped in a series of off-putting scenes.
Still, I commend the undertaking of this film. Despite the fact that I did not enjoy the actual process of watching it, I appreciate how many different stories were told within one narrative. Memories, illness, hopes, fears and identity were all explored through the lens of a relationship on its last legs, a relationship that we cannot be sure ever actually existed. We are constantly questioning our own realities because of the influences of the outside world and how our minds adjust to them. If there’s anything valuable that came out of my confusion during this movie, it’s the idea that you can never be too secure in what you deem your own reality.
Simi Olurin | firstname.lastname@example.org