As we continue this unusual fall semester at the University, our free time is steadily shrinking as our workload increases. Therefore, the time that we do have for ourselves needs to be economized. Which is why I will say this: it may be a waste of time for some people to watch Charlie Kaufman’s new Netflix film “i’m thinking of ending things.”
I don’t mean to disparage the film, which I found very compelling, or to denigrate the viewers who wouldn’t enjoy themselves. It’s just not a movie for everyone, and that is OK. Some people like watching ballet. To me, that is visual and auditory Ambien.
The film follows a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who embarks on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents (Toni Collete and David Thewlis). Throughout this road trip, the young woman contemplates ending things—whether this phrase means ending her romantic relationship or her life is ambiguous. That’s all of the story I want to (or can) give without ruining the experience of the film, which is almost too strange to put into words.
Below, I have given three metrics that will hopefully give you a sense of what type of film this is. These metrics might also help you determine whether viewing the film is the best use of your already limited time.
This first metric is whether you are willing to embrace a movie where you won’t easily know what’s going on. I don’t just mean that the plot and themes are complex. Rather, things like the logic of each scene, basic character motivations, and the reasons why things happen are intentionally ambiguous.
Similar to Charlie Kaufman’s other recent films, “ending things” does not feel the need to justify this type of storytelling, unlike his earlier screenplays which were helmed by other directors.
Compare this film to his earlier movies: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (which he wrote) and “Synecdoche, New York” (which he wrote and directed). In “Eternal Sunshine,” mind-bending scenes are logically justified, since the film’s protagonist is going through a medical procedure to erase the memories of his ex-lover. The strange scenes take place within the interiority of his mind. The final scene of the film depicts a defiantly romantic (or maybe futile) belief in the continual search for love, despite knowing that it will likely end tragically.
Despite the plot’s surreal elements, the end of the film has a clear resolution for the characters that is easy to understand.
The reverse is true in “Synechdoche, New York:” the uncanny world and events are not logically justified (a leaf falls out of a girls tattoo!). More importantly, these elements don’t add up to a conclusion with a defined resolution. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have any meaning. Rather, it takes more time and effort to grasp what the film is trying to convey. This means viewers will most likely never come to a completely satisfying conclusion.
“i’m thinking of ending things” is more akin to “Synechdoche” in that it resists easy interpretation. If this sounds boring, pretentious, or a waste of time, then you probably won’t enjoy this movie. This is not to say that the film is inaccessible: as Wesleyan students, we could all probably crank out solid papers on it if put under the barrel of a grade and deadline. But many people will not derive any pleasure or satisfaction by spending their limited amount of free time engaging with a film in such a cerebral way.
However, if you are one of those artsy film/English/poetry/“what does it mean to be a tree?” people who reads this and thinks, “Ah yes, art!” while stroking your chin (not to disparage you, because I’m one of you), you will probably enjoy this movie.
The second metric is based on your stance when you see a large divide between enthusiastic critics and disappointed fans on Rotten Tomatoes.
I have seen this divide primarily on movies that mislead the viewer in order to get their butt into a seat no matter what. This is especially true with ‘Movies that are not really horror movies but are marketed as such’ (MTANRHMBAMAS for short).
The trailer for “i’m thinking of ending things” is a perfect example of a MTANRHMBAMAS film. Rewatching the trailer after seeing the film, I now notice the manipulative “spooky” music that isn’t in the actual film, the unnecessary frequent cutting, and misrepresentation of characters and dialogue. There’s so much editing contortion going on it would make an Olympic gymnast look like William Howard Taft playing Twister. There are many examples of this “trailer magic.” Jarring cuts between the parents and the young couple might suggest the parents will turn into cannibals (spoiler: they don’t, but they do eat a cooked ham!). The trailer presents a continuous loop of a dog shaking his fur as if he’s possessed by the antichrist or something (in the movie, the dog shakes his fur like a normal dog and is done…though he also may not exist). Often, lines of dialogue have a greater significance in the trailer than they actually do to the story. One particularly fun misconstrued moment is when a worried Tulsey Town server says to Young Woman, “You can stay here, you don’t have to go forward,” underscored by warped ghoul wailing. It might seem like “going forward” means “going forward to the house of an axe murderer.” In reality, it’s to a high school gym.
All of these elements add up to a complete misrepresentation of the film’s tone and pacing. I feel sorry for the poor sucker who was hoodwinked into watching this movie, expecting M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” when really they’ve been duped by Big Trailer. This audience member might realize they’ve been duped after the opening twenty-minute car ride, which contains a number of dazzling set-pieces. These include a character explaining how some bugs kill themselves, a character reciting a poem, and a character talking about their love of musical “Oklahoma!.” Audience members might even sit through a story of maggots eating dying pigs, an analysis of that story, a janitor watching a fictional Robert Zemeckis rom-com, or a deep-dive into a David Foster Wallace essay before they realize that there’s not going to be any ghoul attack.
In Kaufman’s film, the pace is slower, the thrills are virtually nonexistent (unless you count a dance sequence with a prop knife) and the tone is much more melancholic and contemplative. “It’s a uniquely human fantasy that things will get better, born perhaps of the uniquely human understanding that things will not” and other zingers like that occupy a good amount of the dialogue, which is 55 percent voiceover. Like “It Comes At Night,” this film has divided the critics and audience members.
“Now I know what a boiled frog feels like when it realizes what’s happening after it’s too late to do anything about it,” one mighty viewer boldly claimed on Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, on the same site, the critics are saying things like, “It’s a work of emotional impressionism with moments of rueful grace and startling images that evoke yearning.”
Basically, if you have been bamboozled by fake horror movies, and your sentiments are similar to those of the audience reviews, “i’m thinking of ending things” may not be the right film for you. However, if you’re the person coming out of the theater saying, “That’s not the point, the monster was the fallibility of the human mind” (but you’re probably actually on to something), then this may be the film for you.
This last metric relates to the enjoyment of watching a film that has been presented in a creative and competent way.
When confronted with a movie whose plot is unclear, where its meaning is opaque, or when David Lynch randomly devotes ten minutes to some woman lip-syncing to Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish before collapsing, some viewers will still derive satisfaction at the mere experience of just watching a scene with a unique and compelling presentation. Some people can simply enjoy the editing, cinematography, sound design, staging, concept, or acting of a movie.
When watching “ending things” for the first time, the first thing you can conclusively say is that the film has a unique approach to its presentation. The editing is off-kilter, the continuity is noticeably broken, certain actors play their characters cartoonishly while others are naturalistic, and sound cues pop up unnaturally. All of these elements create a viewing experience where the audience members are most likely going to feel confused, uneasy, and possibly angry.
There is a clear intentionality to this presentation and its relationship to the story, but understanding the connection between the aesthetics and meaning takes more time for an audience member watching this, and not a film like “Knives Out” or “Parasite.” If that does not sound interesting or fun, then this may not be the film for you. However, if you’re the type of person who tells people that “Rashomon” was the first film where a camera was pointed at the sun, and this was done to evoke the disorientation of the characters, then this may be a film for you.
Finally, I’ll just add two more points. First, if you’re still curious even though this article said you wouldn’t be, it might be worth it for you to check it out. Second, even if you’re like me and seek out movies like this, there may also be a chance that you will hate “ending things.” Although I found this experience rewarding, and even now certain images and scenes are still churning in my head, other gung-ho film types have found this one to be a waste of time.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote that, “Ultimately, the movie plays like a bullet-point argument for a thesis.” This is my long-winded way of saying that people’s taste in movies cannot neatly fit into one of two categories, especially if those two categories are defined by one twenty-year-old who is powered solely by coffee and “M*A*S*H” reruns. Hopefully, these metrics have given you some idea of what this film and the experience of watching it are like. However, these metrics are still, as “Pirates of the Caribbean’s” Captain Barbosa once said, more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.
Isaac Slomski-Pritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org