Writer and director Charlie Kaufman, with his previous films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich,” possesses both a keen understanding of the mind and the ability to smoothly translate this understanding into film. In some ways expanding on those previous films, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” paints a deliberately garbled and distorted, yet oddly captivating, portrait of the mind.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” thrusts the viewer into Lucy’s (Jessie Buckley) rambling poetic monologue that pessimistically describes her desire to end a relationship with a man named Jake (Jesse Plemons) as she goes on a road trip with him to his family’s farm.
Near the beginning of the film, which is based on Iain Reid’s novel, the protagonist Lucy recites a poem while staring out a car’s frosted window into a thick snowstorm. Suddenly, she turns and stares straight into the camera, continuing the poem with a smirk, “Everything you see now, all of it bone.”
For the most part, the film possesses a delicate balance between organic human interaction and uncanny moments of absurdity until the balance tips in the third act, and the film indulges in the whimsicality of its premise.
The opening monologue stream of consciousness eventually embraces and overpowers the film. Curiously, the film repeatedly cuts away from its contained premise to the life of a high school janitor (Guy Boyd). The janitor rarely has lines of dialogue, yet the entire film seems to revolve around him, gradually peering deeper into his psyche.
A scene early on in the film where Lucy describes her paintings to Jake’s parents at a dinner table conversation functions as a microcosm for the film. Lucy says her paintings aren’t “abstract art,’’ but they are landscapes imbued with a quality of “interiority,” which she describes as an expression of what she is feeling at the time instead of what is physically present in the landscape. Her paintings express an emotional reality that the film also seems to embody.
With somber shots of the janitor dragging his feet through empty yet claustrophobic school corridors, the film gives the viewer a sense of the “landscape” that the janitor lives within. Thus, it feels rather fitting for the entire film to be presented in an unconventional 4:3 aspect ratio, with the thick vertical black bars framing the film, mirroring the lockers and walls that frame a hallway. Much like Lucy’s paintings, the film is like a manifestation of the janitor’s emotional reality.
The screenplay is littered with literary and cinematic allusions to works such as the film “A Woman Under the Influence” directed by John Cassavetes or the book “Ice” written by Anna Kavan and authors such as William Wordsworth, David Foster Wallace and Oscar Wilde. Although there is a sense of verisimilitude to the rambling and tangential nature of the conversations that naturally lead to someone mentioning one of these works, the intensely detailed analysis of these works of art seem to break this illusion of authenticity and enter the realm of unrestrained thought.
For instance, when Jake and Lucy are driving home, a casual conversation about being under the influence of alcohol reminds them of the aforementioned “A Woman Under the Influence.” Yet the discussion quickly spirals into Lucy narrating a verbose college paper she had written on it, which could feel somewhat jarring. While some viewers might identify these indulgent allusions as a product of pretension, they work to remind the viewer of the impressionistic reality that these characters live within as one being crafted by the janitor’s various engagements with media.
The cinematography, by Lukasz Zal and editing by Robert Frazen intricately translate the janitor’s sprawling mind. On one hand, the constraining aspect ratio and stillness of most shots encapsulate the stagnance of the janitor’s point of view. The camera movement usually consists of slow mechanical sideways panning, with rare zooms. Instead, jarring cuts are used to interrupt this stagnance to shift the point of view, encapsulating the mental process of indulgently thinking about something but suddenly shifting one’s thoughts to an entirely distinct idea. Moreover, the uniformity of this visual style effectively sets up the third act’s indulgence in the fantastical through an unexpected departure from it.
In a way, the film’s core presents a continual conflict between the independence of the characters within the fantasy and the man who constructed it. Jake, a surrogate for the janitor, is described as controlling, whereas Lucy’s unrelenting flurry of thoughts seems uncontrollable. Similarly, the janitor wishes to construct an ideal love story within his head, but Lucy overpowers his thoughts, spiraling them out of control and into an unwanted traumatic past. This conflict is what seems to perpetually color the tense atmosphere of the film.
The musical and theatrical climax and ending of the film seem to indulge in fantasy, seemingly resolving this conflict; however, the credits are presented with a peculiar lack of music. Instead, they are backed by unsettling ambient sounds of birds chirping, and they end in the revving of a car engine, restarting the road trip, demonstrating a paradoxical refusal to end things.