Monday, April 19, 2021

I'm Thinking of Ending Things


Charlie Kaufman on the set with Jessie Buckley











I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS                 B                                                                    USA  (134 mi)  2020  d:  Charlie Kaufman 

But when there’s a moon in my winder                                                                                          And it slants down a beam ‘cross my bed                                                                                                                                            Then the shadder of a tree starts a-dancin’ on the wall                                                                  And a dream starts a-dancin’ in my head                                                                                                                                                                                                                              And all the things that I wish fer                                                                                                      Turn out like I want them to be                                                                                                     And I’m better than that smart-aleck cowhand                                                                             Who thinks he is better’n me!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               And the girl I want                                                                                                                           Ain’t afraid of my arms                                                                                                                 And her own soft arms keep me warm                                                                                             And her long, yeller hair                                                                                                            Falls across my face                                                                                                                                                  Jist like the rain in a storm!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        The floor creaks                                                                                                                                             The door squeaks                                                                                                                                           And the mouse starts a-nibblin’ on the broom                                                                            And the sun flicks my eyes—                                                                                                          It was all a pack o’ lies!                                                                                                                 I’m awake in a lonely room

Lonely Room, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, sung by Jud Fry from Oklahoma!, (song omitted from the movie version), I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020) - Lonely Room - HQ YouTube (2:50)

Let’s see, there’s dreary, drearier, and dreariest, and this miserablist film deals with all of that, to which you can add dark and chillingly morbid, with a touch of the surreal.  Made by the same writer/director of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (2008), which was like a towering architectural experiment that continually explored new regions, feeling-ever expanding, where the performances themselves were mind-blowing, this is a different animal altogether, spare and minimal, by comparison, a psychological drama with beautiful, relatable monologues, largely taking place in the minds of two people with their thoughts often interchanged, creating a uniquely bizarre labyrinthian landscape that explores hidden regions of an untapped subconscious, yet plays out in a dry and undramatic fashion, often in-your-face and over the top, bordering on farce, as point-of-view is continually changing, altering reality as we know it, plunging into a netherworld that may or may not stand up to scrutiny.  It’s a baffling exercise exploring a strange malaise that exists between two persons, a young couple, Jake (Jesse Plemons, assuming the Philip Seymour Hoffman role), as understated as a character can be, just an ordinary guy harboring dark secrets, often seeming ghoulishly cold in temperament, and his more kind and affable girlfriend, grad student Lucy (Jessie Buckley), who may also be a waitress, artist, or quantum physicist, with most of the interior thoughts initially coming from her perspective, as they head out into farm country during a raging blizzard of snow for a family dinner to meet his parents, David Thewlis and Toni Collette, who are completely off-the-wall, changing age with each appearance, where the subconscious eventually takes hold, leaving reality a thing of the past, leaving viewers scratching their heads, wondering just what the Hell is happening.  To that extent, it’s largely a puzzle picture that feels overly intellectualized, internally analyzing what’s taking place, which has a way of taking all the life out of it, often leaving viewers perplexed, dumbfounded by an extreme detachment with what’s taking place onscreen, featuring plenty of self-loathing, offering questions of mortality, common themes in Kaufman’s works, which always seem like an exercise in self-analysis. While there is plenty of really cool stuff on display here, a few fabulous sequences that feel genuinely inspired, it’s overloaded with a bleak and depressing vantage point, including suicidal idealizations, with suggestions that these two have no business being together, where eventually it feels lifeless and too flat, as if all the air has dissipated from the room.  Whatever expectations one may have coming into the film, this director is sure to obliterate them all, creating an abstract, heavily symbolic work that will challenge each and every viewer, becoming a moody, self-absorbed road trip where the side adventures eventually take over and dominate the landscape.        

Adapted from Iain Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name, this is the only film from this director that includes another writer as the source material, which is in itself a curious relationship, much like the one depicted onscreen, as Kaufman has written some superlative screenplays, like Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) and ADAPTATION (2002), as well as Michel Gondry’s extraordinary ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004).  That said, he is considered one of the most strikingly original filmwriters of our generation, with few peers that can compare, but this adaptation may actually be his least successful effort largely because it doesn’t originate with him, but is instead interpreted by him, remaining remarkably faithful to the source material’s structure and basic plot.  While he may have felt a personal connection with this book, and puts his owns stamp on it, in many ways the book is a good deal clearer and more transparent than the movie, shot by Polish cinematographer Łukasz Żal, with Kaufman adding his own touch of ambiguity, veering into fantasy, which can be something of a mindfuck of a film.  There’s something distressing and even annoying about the ending, becoming overly uncomfortable, forcing viewers away from Lucy’s vantage point, where she has been a pleasant host as narrator that one easily identifies with, and turns instead to a less likeable Jake, a character we don’t entirely trust, knowing Lucy is uneasy about continuing a relationship with him, yet he becomes the focus, where the entire film may actually be seen through his eyes, which may leave viewers flabbergasted.  In more ways than one, it’s all about Jake, yet he’s the most unreliable character in the room, subject to violent mood swings, not altogether likeable, harboring a secret life throughout the entire picture, possibly inventing Lucy as an extension of himself, creating a more likeable side, where the truth of the matter is he leads a sad and depressing life, talented in many ways, but unrecognized, leading an uneventful and anonymous life, where his crushing loneliness may be a key to understanding the entire picture.  While it’s a bizarre depiction, Jake is not nearly as socially engaging as the much more charismatic Lucy, who tends to dominate the movie, guided by her charm and easy appeal, where one of the most powerful moments is when she reads a wrenchingly dramatic poem while they are traveling in a car, Bonedog YouTube (4:43), not the kind typically used in films, showing greater range and extreme depth of character, taking the audience by surprise, as it simply comes out of nowhere, Bonedog. a poem by Eva H.D. | by Marianne | Medium.  Later in the film we are surprised to learn that it comes from a book of poems attributed to another author, yet was supposedly originated by Lucy, who sees herself as something of a poet.  This is but one of the recurring fault lines offering clues that things are not what they seem.      

Certainly one possibility is that this entire film may exist inside one man’s head, developing illusions of grandeur to avoid seeing what a pathetic wretch he’s become.  Accordingly, most of the film takes place in a moving car in the middle of a raging snowstorm, yet for all their efforts, it seemingly goes nowhere.  Lucy is introduced as an early narrator, where all of the focus is on her, yet her name and occupation change multiple times in the film, while her storyline nearly disappears by the end.  Nonetheless, early on, she quotes Oscar Wilde, offering a curious viewpoint about how we continuously live through others, “Most people are other people:  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”  About this same time, Jake flips on the radio, playing a song from a musical that Jake immediately recognizes is a passage from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!  While he downplays his interest in musicals, he rattles off more than a dozen or so (the list keeps growing) that are among his favorites, intercut by a mysterious scene with footage of an elderly janitor (Guy Boyd) working at a high school, where he sees students rehearsing the same musical.  By the time they arrive at his parent’s farmhouse, they are nowhere to be seen, while Jake is uneasy and uncomfortable, nervously awaiting their arrival, with Lucy struck by a picture of Jake that resembles how she looked as a child, becoming confused.  By the time his parents do finally arrive, they are all pleasantries, also a little bit strange and eccentric, even manic, feeling more like an out-of-body experience, with Lucy telling them the story of how they met, while also showing them some photographs of some landscape paintings she has made that are stored on her phone.  As Lucy wanders through the house, including Jake’s childhood room, much of what happens in this film seems to have originated there, as she finds books that strangely play out in strange variations throughout the film, and posters for exhibitions of Ralph Albert Blakelock paintings that resemble those she showed earlier as her own, while also discovering the same paintings with the name Jake affixed, all of which leads her to question the nature of her relationship with Jake, his family, and everything she sees in the world around her.  Each time his parents appear after dinner, they represent a different period in their lives, shifting from young to old and back to young again, with Jake undergoing intense personal encounters with them that seem vastly different than just this one evening, as if time has been consolidated into just a few moments.  At home, Jake never looks more depressed, exuding the sense of a loner caught between the continually changing fabric of fact and fiction.

It is only after Lucy extends a great effort that they finally leave, but Jake doesn’t share that sense of urgency, instead commenting that she drank too much wine at dinner, comparing her to the Cassavetes movie character Mabel Longhetti, played by Gena Rowlands, perhaps because they both want so much to be liked and loved, which leads to a bizarre critique of the Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence (1974), which she over-analyzes from an intellectual perspective, repeating word-for-word parts of a Pauline Kael review, Letterboxd on Twitter: "Pauline Kael's December 9, 1974 New ..., which largely misses the point and is counterintuitive, as the beauty of Cassavetes films lies in the truth of his emotional connections.  Nonetheless, this is only the first of a few diversions, stopping at Tulsey Town, an all-night ice-cream drive-through, before getting into a heated argument over what she describes as rape lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Jordan - Baby, It's Cold Outside ... YouTube (2:45), a popular 40’s song that won the Oscar for Best Song in 1949.  Lucy basically personifies affirmation, however, unlike Jake, always striving to be better, briefly impersonating a virologist, “Everything wants to live, Jake.  Viruses are just one more example of everything.  Even fake, crappy movie ideas want to live.  Like, they grow in your brain, replacing real ideas.  That’s what makes them dangerous.”  But the biggest surprise is making a strange detour in the night to visit his old high school, perhaps awkwardly realizing his life is not on the trajectory he wanted, where he seems to be going backwards and forward in time, perhaps inventing memories to protect him from the dull and insipid life he’s really leading, filled with nothing but regrets, mysteriously wandering out of the car, where his absence creates a mood of suspicion and dread, perhaps even anticipation of horror elements, with Lucy begrudgingly following sometime later, completely blindsided by his absence.  Inside the hallways of the school the pace of the film slows to a crawl, and in a striking transition an alternative fantasy life evolves, including a surreal ballet dance sequence, with Jake and Lucy morphing into Broadway dancer Ryan Steele and New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan, observed by the lone janitor on duty, I'm Thinking of Ending Things - Ballet scene YouTube (2:25).  Evolving even further, a larger fantasy life takes over, altering one’s sense of consciousness, changing the film trajectory into a fictional universe where Jake imagines himself an old man receiving recognition and acclaim for living a fulfilled life, mimicking a scene from A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), I'm Thinking of Ending Things vs. A Beautiful Mind - Side by Side Comparison YouTube (2:39) before stepping onto a musical set and singing a number from Oklahoma! about envisioning a better, happier life, only to realize it’s all been a dream, I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020) - Lonely Room - HQ YouTube (2:50).  Released on Netflix in the year of Covid, which presents its own challenges, the underlying motivation of this film feels designed to overcome powerful feelings of depression, but the downbeat subject and doppelgänger universe may leave many viewers even further alienated and confused, where something we heard earlier from Lucy reverberates with greater meaning only at the end of the picture, “Other animals live in the present.  Humans cannot, so they invented hope.”

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