The horror genre typically gives the audience an out. Even as it piles terror, dread, and tension, there exists the likelihood of thrills or some supernatural other. Our hearts race with anticipation like the giddy ride of a roller coaster providing the illusion of danger even as we’re safely strapped in and know that no harm will come to us. Charlie Kaufman’s horror movie, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, surgically removes those thrills to leave us with nothing but the existential terror of our own existence. Unglued from the literal to swim in the waters of the abstract, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is awash in a sea of anxieties to drown its audience in fear and sorrow. The film is aggressively depressing in attitude if not in any particular action. Watching the film, you share in the protagonist’s ennui, malaise, and suffering of time as we’re in a prison we cannot see but constantly experience. It is a deeply unpleasant experience.
A girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) named Louisa, or maybe Lucia, or maybe it doesn’t matter is on a snowy road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet Jake’s Mom (Toni Collette) and Dad (David Thewlis). The girlfriend has been thinking of breaking things off with Jake. He’s nice enough, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a future there, or much of anywhere. Her journey with Jake takes her to the deepest recesses of her most terrifying anxieties as the mundane dinner with Jake’s parents reveals the girlfriend’s fears of time, aging, relationships, and the pain of existence.
Even at his most bizarre, Kaufman typically builds in some guardrails for his audience. It doesn’t matter precisely how there came to be a portal to John Malkovich’s head; the larger point is the discomfort we feel with our own existence and our desire to escape via the connection with another person. It doesn’t really matter how everyone has Tom Noonan’s voice and featureless countenance in Anomalisa; what matters is that our protagonist feels disconnected from the entire world. You know it’s going to get strange in a Kaufman movie, and the only question is how strange it’s going to get. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is even stranger than Kaufman’s 2008 directing debut Synecdoche, New York. It’s a movie that refuses to hold your hand for even a second to constantly set you ill-at-ease. You’ll sit there and wonder, “Why is Louisa now called Lucia?” “Why does the girlfriend’s course of study keep changing?” “Why do Jake’s parents keep changing ages?” “Why are the conversations so strained and stilted?” “Who is this silent janitor we keep coming back to?”
To try and “explain” I’m Thinking of Ending Things would be folly because it’s not about the answers as much as it’s about the lack of answers. It’s about the general sense of dread at our own existence. You take a mundane event—meeting your boyfriend’s parents—and it becomes a synecdoche for seeing your entire life flash before your eyes. If you stay with this dry, pleasant enough, but ultimately unfulfilling man, this will become your life. Your identity will be subsumed with his. His parents will become your parents and you will now be charged with caring for these people you’ve never met until your adulthood. It doesn’t matter if any of these people are good or bad; this is your life now, and then your life is over. “We think we pass through time, but time passes through us,” the girlfriend says. Life is meaningless and then you die. Pass the yule log.
If you’re like me and constantly riddled with anxieties, there’s some annoyance at having to share in even more anxieties watching this movie. I’m Thinking of Ending Things wants us to sit with the horrors we know exist and choose to ignore. We fear our own erasure, we fear alienation, we fear connection, we fear aging, we fear everything and as we’re told late in the film, “Everything is the same.” I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t have highs and lows as much as it’s the low hum of dread. It’s hard to feel much for the girlfriend because her anxieties stand out for the larger swath of white, middle-class existence. There’s nothing special about her because there’s nothing special about people like her, and you just kind of continue along in a relentless snow drift trying to grasp on to something—art, knowledge, another person—for some kind of meaning.
The unrelenting entropy of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is both purposeful and awful. I can’t fault the film for achieving what it sets out do any more than I can fault a root canal for being painful. It is the nature of the thing. It exists outside the good/bad spectrum because it is very successful at being excruciating. It is a horror film without reprieve and without answer. There is only, to quote the girlfriend, “Deeds and suffering.”
i’m thinking of ending things is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.