Trigger Warning: panic attacks, suicide, self-harm.
This review was adapted from its original publication on Letterboxd on September 4th, 2020.
On March 26th, 2020, I went out for a jog. I was alone. I jogged from my childhood house all the way up to my childhood middle school and back — about a mile both ways. The day before, I had moved out of my dorm forcibly as a result of the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic. Am I using that word right? “Burgeoning?” I just looked it up, and it seems right. It seems appropriate. “Burgeoning.” It sounds like a mix between bludgeoning and burdening. Well, anyway. I was out for a jog.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is, like many Charlie Kaufman movies… no. God, no. That doesn’t seem like the right place to start. God, none of this seems like the right place to start, Jesus fucking Christ. I’ve never even had to write a review for a movie like this before. Does any of this even make sense? Stream of consciousness. That’s this review. That’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things in a nutshell. Stream of consciousness. Antkind, too. I haven’t finished that book, but I want to. I feel echoes of it here. The fast food stand in the middle of nowhere. The night. The car. The cold. The dark. It all feels familiar. Like I’ve been there before, or I’m going to be there, or I am there. Like everything that has ever happened to me or will ever happen to me is happening to me now, all at once.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things. God, what a movie. It’s hard to talk about it without talking about my predisposition towards Kaufman. His work is monumental. His early career was phenomenal, but for me, it wasn’t until he made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that he really hit his stride. I watched Eternal Sunshine for the first time as an assignment for my philosophy class on Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. The final half of the semester focused on Nietzsche, and for our final paper we had to watch Eternal Sunshine and note the echoes of eternal recurrence in the film. I think Eternal Sunshine is much more than an echo of Nietzsche, though. It’s very human, in a very inhuman way. It’s surreal, in a very grounded way. It is balanced.
Synecdoche, New York is not balanced, by any stretch of the imagination. No-holds barred. A full scale Kaufman assault of biblical proportions. Kaufman threw everything he had against the wall, and to this day it still stands as Kaufman’s opus. In my eyes, at least. And after that… well, Anomalisa is a great film, but it feels restrained. A masterpiece in my eyes, to be sure, but very simple and easy to digest. I suppose I was waiting for the next great, sweeping opus from Charlie Kaufman.
And that’s where I’m Thinking of Ending Things comes in. The first live-action Kaufman in twelve years. The first Kaufman since Human Nature to feature a strictly female protagonist. Unlike Synecdoche, New York, I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes place over one night. Unlike Anomalisa, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is incredibly dense and complex. It has all the weight of Synecdoche in the compact package of Anomalisa. It is a bite-sized bullet through the heart. It is a rabid chihuahua wagging its tail and barking at pedestrians. It is a dying child in the arms of his mother. It is a dying mother in the arms of her child.
And I suppose now is the bit where I tie it all back to the beginning. On March 26th, 2020, I went out for a jog. When I came back, my dad sat me down at the kitchen table. He told me that he just got back from the hospital, and that my grandpa — I called him Papaw — had just passed away. He had left before it happened, and he received the call from my grandmother — Mamaw — while he was driving back home. I wasn’t at all shocked or surprised by this news. We all knew Papaw was not long for this world. It had been several months and he was not in great shape. He was in hospice care for the last few weeks of his life, and he was with Mamaw until he passed. So, I had prepared. And I was accepting of it.
The months pass. At that time, if Google is anything to believe, the United States had surpassed 887 COVID-19 deaths. Eight hundred and eighty-seven. Can you believe it? The actual number is probably higher than what was initially reported, too. The number of COVID-19 deaths is estimated to have surpassed 9/11 deaths a mere five days later. Now, we’re nearing six hundred thousand. Since then, I’ve lived five months in my parents’ house, played a lot of video games, replayed a lot of video games, watched a lot of movies, although not nearly as many as I wanted to, started hormone therapy, passed two Chinese classes (I still don’t know a lick of Chinese), and now I’m back in my own place again.
Five months. Five months? God, it seems like it’s been longer. Am I rambling? I know I’m rambling, I’m sorry. The thing is, I lied to you. You clicked on this to see a review of Charlie Kaufman’s new film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, based on the novel of the same name by Iain Reid. I know that, don’t worry. You came here because you’re my friend, or maybe you know that I’m a huge Kaufman freak, and maybe you wanted to see my thoughts on the new film. I get that. And here I am, wasting your time talking about my dead grandpa. “What does that have to do with the film,” you might be asking. “Why did you bring it up?”
Towards the middle of the film, Jessie Buckley’s character suddenly finds that Jake and his parents have disappeared. She calls for Jake, and he sounds like he’s upstairs. Jessie Buckley goes upstairs and finds a door labeled “Jake’s Childhood Bedroom.” She goes inside and finds a bunch of stuff, which isn’t very important right now. And then, a hand touches her shoulder. She turns around, and it’s Jake’s dad, portrayed by David Thewlis. The thing is, he looks much older. Much, much older. As he talks, it’s clear that his mental state is deteriorating. He looks like he’s hunched over, he’s slurring his words — god, he must be seventy or eighty.
David Thewlis, in that scene, looks almost identical to my Papaw. More than that, he acts and sounds exactly like him.
All of a sudden, the tears come rushing to me. I start breathing heavily. My heart starts racing. Is this what grief feels like? No. No, you fucking idiot. Grief happens in stages, there’s a whole fucking unit in grade school psychology about the stages of grief, you lunatic. Grief doesn’t happen all at once like this. Not like this, it doesn’t. Well, can it? Maybe it does. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you’re going crazy. God, am I going crazy? Oh god, I can see him. I didn’t get to see him go, but now I see him. He’s back from the grave and here to haunt me. Did Charlie Kaufman make this movie for me? No, god no, obviously not. What are you, crazy? Charlie Kaufman doesn’t even know you. How would he know what Papaw looks like? Is he psychic? Maybe he’s God. Or the devil, or SOMETHING. God, there has to be a reason. There has to be! It has to make sense! Why doesn’t anything make any sense anymore? Nothing makes sense anymore! All I’ve done for the past five months is worry about whether or not things make sense, and whether or not I’m going crazy, and whether or not this is normal. This is not normal! God, this is not normal! I want to shout it at the top of my lungs so that everyone can hear it.
This is not normal.
This is not normal.
This is not normal.
This is not normal.
This is not normal.
There’s something I didn’t tell you, though. Remember when I said I watched Eternal Sunshine for the first time for that class? The night I watched it was the night I cut myself for the first time. I think about that a lot. I think about that plenty. I had to go to therapy. I could have died. Did you know that? I could have died. What the FUCK is wrong with me? Now I’m oversharing on the internet to potentially dozens of people about my personal life and problems! Why am I like this? WHY COULDN’T I HAVE JUST BEEN BORN NORMAL?
After the panic attack and the tears subsided, I kept watching. My eyes were glued. Toni Collette in elderly makeup looks like my Mamaw, I thought. God, I hope my Mamaw is alright. I haven’t talked to her in a while.
So, I guess you want my review now. Here it is:
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is my third favorite film of all time, only eclipsed by Kaufman’s own Synecdoche, New York. It is an intimate, intense experience magnified by my own personal experiences. I can’t speak for everyone, but to me the film feels universal. Everyone can view themselves in this narrative. The characters are people you know. They have no names. You know a “Jake,” though. You know his parents. They’re your parents, or your friend’s parents, or your lover’s parents. Or they’re your grandparents. The script, as can be expected of Kaufman, is immaculate, and is only helped along by the masterful cinematography and editing. Seriously, if this isn’t nominated for at least one Oscar, I’m crying foul.
Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons work wonderfully off of each other, so much so that I consider theirs to be one of the great Kaufman romances, like Joel and Clementine, or Caden and Hazel. Their conversations comprise a lot of the film, and they’re incredibly engaging and charismatic — very reminiscent of My Dinner With André, another one of my favorites. Jessie Buckley entertains a depressed, yet outwardly cheerful persona, while Plemons is distanced and oblivious, yet grounded and caring. The film plays off of this contradiction. It is the twine holding the film together, and it is bursting. God, is it bursting.
It is only at the very end, when all of the pieces have been carefully set up, that things are finally allowed to fall apart. The final twenty or so minutes are some of the most amazingly written, gorgeously shot, emotionally poignant, and viscerally terrifying of any film I’ve ever seen. It is so incredible that I can’t even say anything more about it other than that it is remarkable. A landmark, even.
All of us have lived each-others’ lives. At least, we think we have. I think about that a lot. I feel like I’ve lived twenty or thirty lives in just my one. Just my small portion of one, good lord. I’m twenty years old, I feel like I’m twenty different eighty year olds. Experiences can be universal, and they can be specific, but they can also be universally specific. We all experience little quirks and tremors in our day-to-day lives that are more-or-less the same. Are we all the same? No, I don’t think so. What separates us? Love? Maybe. Our upbringing? Probably. Our sexualities? Our genders? Perhaps. But universally, critically, fundamentally… we are, at some level, the same. “Everybody’s everyone,” as another Kaufman character once said.
The reason I wanted to re-publish this review on Medium is because today was the day of my Papaw’s funeral. It’s been more than a year since his death, and this is the first time since COVID began that I’ve seen all of my father’s side of the family. I felt at peace for this first time in a while. And for the whole day, this review has been ringing in my mind. All of the emotions I’ve had, about COVID, about Papaw, about everything… they’re all contained within this one crazy little movie. And I’ll always be thankful for that.
So, that’s it. Thanks for reading. I hope this wasn’t too much a burden.