Lucy wants to end things. No, not life, but this car ride. The snow beats down on the windshield, and it’s cold, so cold, and everything just feels wrong. The fastest way out of the passenger seat is to end it, to break it off, but too soon, and it’s stranded in the snow. So she can’t leave now, but she can at least think of ending things. Louisa… wait, no, that’s not right… Amy…? No, not quite right here either. Names aren’t static here, nothing is. She is what is important, not her name, and he, Jake, is always constant. In the credits she is referred to as “The Young Woman,” so that is the name she shall be given.
The Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) doesn’t quite know why she wants it to end with Jake (Jesse Plemons), but she is certain that this can’t go on. It’s not that she’s un-attracted to him, it’s not that their philosophical banter bores her, but this just can’t go on, even as he is good, she is thinking of ending things. She doesn’t want to meet his parents; their farm scares her; it reeks of the memory of death, and the scratches on the basement door leave her uneasy. This isn’t a place of fear however, it is unsettling, sure, how Jake’s parents seem so distant, so ever-changing, but this at least bears some semblance of home to him. It’s home to her, too—a place where the photos of Jake as a little boy on the wall look a bit too much like her, and Jake’s parents grow too familiar all of a sudden as if they’ve known her as long as their son. This is Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending of Things, a film where nothing is what it seems, only when it seems to be exactly what it is.
“Do we move through time, or does time move through us?” the Young Woman asks once, but this isn’t a time travel movie. Age is just as constant as the color of her shirt, or her name, or her job. Time isn’t necessarily changing, it’s just being written and rewritten. As Jake introduces his girlfriend to his parents, there is a janitor somewhere else watching a Robert Zemeckis movie that does not exist, in a high school we shall soon visit. Familiar faces always come back, and the unfamiliar faces aren’t exactly unknown either.
Oklahoma! is a recurring motif for Kaufman here. It filters through their driving music, the small talk in the car, and its characters come into contact with the couple at their end. It is in the final scene, too, the one moment that comes off heavy-handed in a dense film, that is one of the furthest departures from the source novel. It is startlingly lighthearted and celebratory at first, less so once the lore of the musical is unpacked, but it feels too gentle a sendoff, too kind a nod between lovers, after the preceding madness. The janitor’s story isn’t wrapped up neatly, and does take some thinking to connect the truth, but it is well done, and subverts the tropes by which it follows. Here, some nonsensical nature is necessary, but it is too convoluted at times as the plot edits itself as it goes, but forgets to edit to support its central twist.
Of course, this is a Charlie Kaufman script, so even mundane conversation is key. She is a collage of the greats, reciting poems she does not write and art she does not paint, a woman under the influence spouting off Pauline Kael’s review of the film by that name as if it were her own. She is a part of society, influenced by it, and noticed, while he has a way of words that is hardly practical in daily conversation. She is uncertain, yet she is well spoken, and articulates these feelings that change constantly, all but the idea that she and Jake need to be done. They are able to have serious conversations at ease, whether it be the effect of a mother’s love on mental illness, or her struggle to say no.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ heart is in Jessie Buckley’s revelatory performance. She plays a nameless character, who near-every detail about shifts constantly with such warmth that we fall in love with someone we don’t truly know anything about. When the couple stop at a Dairy Queen stand-in called Tulseytown (yet another nod to Oklahoma), a young girl at the counter is ostracized by her coworkers, and is enamored by Buckley’s character. She tells her the sharpness of her face never comes with that warmth, and that warmth is what gives us the faith in her performance as everything around and about her shifts.
Kaufman’s experiment in rewriting a story over and over as it is told may falter in its closing scene, but what comes before, especially the rest of the ending, is so well woven and powerfully scripted. He edits himself well, contradicting the initial tale to grow closer and closer to the truth, and he criticizes the world that has made these characters who they are and torn them down, with remarkable restraint. The Young Woman recites a poem as they drive, speaking of a “wife shaped loneliness, some self awareness as to who her character is, and the self awareness doesn’t stop here as Kaufman seems to almost mock himself for the cliche twist he elevates. All in all, this is his best film yet, crafting a tender anti-love story of characters within characters, all within one winding drive towards the end.
Look out for a Spoiler Room essay on that ending!