Despite my love for surrealism in film, it’s sometimes the moments rooted in a reality that I gravitate towards. This is exactly what I found to be the best parts of Charlie Kaufman’s new film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. There are a handful of scenes like these and I was most interested in the ones involving the Young Woman (Jessie Buckley), Mother (Toni Collette), and Tulsey Town Girl 3 (Abby Quinn). Although the Janitor (Guy Boyd) and Jake (Jessie Plemons) are the protagonists, the female characters seem to have secret interactions by themselves and with each other, they’re what saves the film from being mediocre.
Charlie Kaufman adapted I’m Thinking of Ending Things from the novel by Ian Reid of the same name. Kaufman is the director of films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York. His films are known for their outlandish cinematography and plots. Kaufman relies on these elements to tell the story of Jake and the Janitor; two lonely men who live by the ethics of the pop culture they consume. In the end, Kaufman decides to focus on the impact this lifestyle has on these two characters (at one point there’s an Oklahoma dream sequence) rather than any other plotline. The consequence is that the female characters are underdeveloped and ornamental.
The only scene in I’m Thinking of Ending Things where the Young Woman’s dialogue is her own is halfway through the film. Her boyfriend, Jake, has made them take a detour to his old high school while driving home from visiting his parents. The Young Woman is abandoned in the car as Jake runs off to go confront a man in the high school building he thought was watching them. As a blizzard rages around the Young Woman, the tension that’s been building the entire film suddenly snaps. ‘‘I shouldn’t have come,’’ she says to no one but herself. It’s only through complete isolation in the car that she’s able to admit her discomfort and regrets. ‘‘It’s hard to say no, I was never taught that,’’ she continues. The Young Woman laughs hopelessly and then cries, her head in her hands. She’s trapped, the worsening snowstorm erasing any possibility to get home.
The most frustrating part of this is that Kaufman restricts himself to hinting at the female characters’ discomfort, which makes all these scattered scenes seem shallow. There’s the point where Jake’s mother warns the Young Woman of his controlling tendencies. Or where Tulsey Town Girl 3, bruises peppered up her arm, hands the Young Woman her ice cream and whispers that she doesn’t have to move forward and get back into the car with Jake. These are disorienting and exhilarating moments Kaufman allows to exist outside of Jake’s gaze. For a film full of subtle meaning, Kaufman misses the opportunity to go deeper. Maybe the intention was to show Jake’s dominating consciousness. But to me, it felt like an excuse, like Kaufman thought the acknowledgment of these women’s trapped situations was enough.
As I watched the final scene, where the Young Woman is now barely recognized, it all felt ironic. The Young Woman is on the film’s poster, her character narrates the trailer and the majority of the movie. Yet, Kaufman dedicates more of the film to quirky dialogue, and pop culture references, than her character development. Once the credits began to roll I realized that the ending, and truly the entire film, had nothing to do with her at all.
View the trailer of I’m Thinking of Ending Things here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDTg62vsV4U&t=1s