By Rachit Raj
The title of Charlie Kaufman’s new movie is pasted on the screen in a small, suffocating font. By the time you complete the movie (and watch it again in the hope of making some sense of it), you realize that there is more to that font than appears. It is at once an afterthought, a recurring stream of consciousness that tries to break into the world of action, and a spoiler, that you need to be incredibly smart to catch without surfing the internet for a few articles, explaining the entire narrative with the help of its source material (a 2016 novel by Iain Reid of the same name) beyond its absurdist visuals.
At its core, the plot is quite simple. A nameless young woman (Jessie Buckley) is on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents. However, there is a little obstacle, as the young woman’s’ voiceover tells us early in the narrative. She is looking to end things with him. Every smile, every gesture, she burdens through the journey is coated in the forcefulness of the act she is performing.
Right from the early minutes of the movie, writer-director Charlie Kaufman captures the fantasy infused in the realism of this world. The constant snowfall has a fairytale touch to it, as if juxtaposing it against the crisis of a punctured emotional turmoil that the young woman is in.
The first instance of a rupture in the narrative comes early, too, when Jake hears words from his girlfriend that are coded in silence all along. For the first time as an audience, your mind is alerted to the fact that there is more at play here than the overarching plot of a couple on a road trip. Kaufman pushes us further when Jake’s parents are introduced to the narrative, followed by a strange inversion of time and space that the young woman goes through. She travels across decades, seeing his parents as a young romantic couple to an old, ailing presence, all in the same farmhouse, as if the house itself is static in time, as the young woman, while those around hop around time nonchalantly.
There are hints here that make the time travel a lopsided narrative technique, too. The young woman finds a poem she recently wrote published in a book kept in Jake’s childhood room. She looks at it curiously but moves on, but as an audience, you remember these little inconsistencies. You also remember the little, unwarranted snippets you are given of a school library. Surely, that cannot be out of a larger context. The film wants us to think, and it is always a few steps ahead of us.
The magic realism at play here is undeniable, but not the kind seen in the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie. The magic is not normalized here. Instead, it is pointed out, as if glitches in the matrix being circled by Kaufman, expecting us to find the answer to his puzzle by recognizing the pattern in its inconsistencies.
At times the conversation between the couple turns a little too intellectual. The young woman (given different names at different time periods in the narrative) feels the most comfortable when alone with Jake, despite the claustrophobia of a bond she has quickly grown out of. The film keeps reminding you that there is something more to these conversations. This is not a Woody Allen film or an extension of the Before trilogy. It is a Kaufman screenplay, and you are expected to be in the knowledge of that all along.
The narrative of I’m Thinking of Ending Things becomes stranger as we move along to the school corridor that we saw in robbed seconds hitherto. A misplaced, magnetic dance piece from musical Oklahoma runs, and as an audience, the absurdity of the actions on screen becomes a tiring puzzle to solve. Strangely, you are still invested, because you know that the hints of the puzzle lay somewhere in there. The lyrics, choreography, a sudden appearance of a janitor who is clearly more to the narrative than an insignificant, unnamed presence.
As it happens in such films, an explanation of its ending and the final reveal will find its way on the internet (it already has), but the beauty of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not in the discovery of its meaning, but the beauty of its mystery. It is a celebration of absurdity, quietly mirroring our anxieties and insecurities through a narrative that refuses to give us anything comfortably. We are all the protagonists of this story or threaten to become that in the future but to understand that, the film demands you to interrogate who the protagonist of the story is.
At every step Kaufman challenges the rules of writing, and at every turn, he gives us an image, a dialogue, a moment that haunts us in the absence of our mind unable to comprehend the complete picture, despite its dangling presence in front of our eyes. It is easy to disregard the brilliance of this movie simply because it is too thick to penetrate past without multiple viewing. It is arrogant, similarly, to expect art to always come with a conclusive explanation.
A film like I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the kind of rich cinematic piece that we have made a habit to recognize and appreciate years later in hindsight, quoting brilliance in the very absence of understanding that initially makes it tough to conceive. Jennifer Lawrence-starrer Mother! fell in that category, fated to its failure by people who refused to give it the time and discussion it demanded. Films like these push the envelope of film-making as a serious artistic medium, and the best we could do is to witness the mastery at work, discuss it with likeminded people, read about it on the internet, and hopefully return to its world a few days later with the hope of capturing the essence of its brilliance.
(Now Streaming on Netflix)