Variations on the Theme of Absurd: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Charlie Kaufman

The daring new film by the eccentric writer/director is available on Netflix.

Don’t let the opening scenes of Charlie Kaufman’s new film I’m Thinking of Ending Things fool you: while, initially, the writer/director seems to employ a traditional narrative style – where a woman named Lucy (Jessie Buckley) prepares to meet her boyfriend’s parents – with the unfolding of events, it becomes clear that Kaufman’s vision is far from being traditional or complying with any form of rationality.

The first sequences – in which the couple drive towards a remote farmhouse – are invested with an introspective tone: it feels as if what we are witnessing is taking place inside Lucy’s mind, her feelings exposed through voice-over closely resembling the literary interior monologue technique. Lucy’s thoughts are constantly interrupted by Jake’s (Jessie Plemons) questions and observations, which spans from the poetry of William Wordsworth to musical theatre. All around, incessant snow keeps on falling, enclosing the couple into an unidentifiable dimension, making them look like blank canvases on which different personalities suddenly manifest.

A kind of existential anxiety permeates their words and gestures, whilst the two travel across a landscape of extreme oppressiveness. When Lucy finally meets Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) something bizarre occurs: characters change clothes, their hair turns grey, they get sick and age, all within the same sequence. Time speaks of senseless things – Bowie used to sing; a line that perfectly captures the mood of this scene and perhaps, of the entire film.

Kaufman has always been drawn to the concept of time, having played with its logical flowing in the screenplay of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, time becomes an entity that slips away from humankind’s control: “People like to think of themselves as points moving through time, but I think it’s probably the opposite. We’re stationary and time passes through us, blowing like cold wind, stealing our heat, leaving us chapped and frozen” ruminates Lucy’s character.

Starting from Iain Reid’s eponymous debut novel, Kaufman portrays a reflection on the absurdness of the human condition, its alienation and its powerlessness when called to confront the passing of time; themes that have been widely explored and discussed in cinema and other art forms.

A scene from I’m Thinking of Ending Things

In this regard, I’m Thinking of Ending Things grows more original if interpreted through the janitor character’s perspective, whose path meets that of Lucy and Jake. As some critics have pointed out, a possible key to understanding the film might lie in the idea that everything experienced by Jake and Lucy is a product of the janitor’s imagination: by creating an alternative universe, the man finds refuge from the loneliness of his reality. In doing so, he isn’t far from the position of writers and film-makers, shapers of illusions that only they can master.

Even if the concept of humankind’s inescapable solitude has been investigated before, here, the modalities through which the condition is presented are daring and often touching: if seen as the creation of a lonesome man’s mind, what occurs in the film acquires a haunting power that drives the viewer to face his own fears and failures.

The aforementioned is, nonetheless, just one way of explaining this intricate text and, as such, shouldn’t be taken as absolute. I’m Thinking of Ending Things remains open to multiple interpretations for – to paraphrase Whitman – it contains multitudes. And that’s its greatest charm.