Wednesday, September 9, 2020

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Spoiler-free!

While she contemplates breaking up with him, a girl goes on a car trip with her boyfriend to have dinner with his parents. Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman and based on a book by Iain Reid, this film is nothing if not weird. It doesn't seem to take place in a solid reality but rather in time; in the mind; in a life. It's disjointed and sporadic. Focused on details in some ways, and broadly vague in others. To me, it feels like a memory.

As someone who's usually frustrated by weird cinema, I'm thrilled to give this an unreserved recommendation.

It's a movie that's open for interpretation—but unlike most arthouse fare these days, that doesn't mean that its makers didn't put intent behind it. As I thought my way through it, some of my explanations didn't fit, so I had to abandon them for other ideas. In what I like to call art-fart movies (because their artistry is nothing but hot air and it stinks to watch them) you can tack on whatever interpretation you fancy and it fits as well as any other. Now, everyone won't come to the exact same conclusions here of course, but at least they can grade their own work. The movie is made in such a way to guide you toward the answers rather than lord its intellect over you. In that way its engaging and inviting—your brain will be churning away on the content before you're aware you've begun!

The cast drew me in. I thought it was likely to be nothing but a waste of two hours based on the genre descriptions of "cerebral" and "arthouse." However, I recently fell in love with the acting of Jessie Buckley who leads—and shoulders—this movie. She brings weight and depth to an every-girl type of role, and turns the deceptively complex character with graceful subtlety. In the few places she wasn't on screen, I missed her. I couldn't get enough. She got me in the door, with support from Jesse Plemons, who's also great, with an enigmatic performance that's balanced perfectly to work for the story. Plus there's the undeniable pro weight of Toni Collette and David Thewlis. When these four gather 'round a dinner table with a sharp script and mind-bending concept, everything turns into magic. 

I love a good dinner scene. This was my favorite in a long time!

Watching was a delight. The cerebral, unreal quality might've kept it from grounding in a physical sense, but it didn't hinder my connecting with it—which is a kind of grounding in itself. A better sign of good storytelling you cannot find than personal connection. But, I admit, I'm struggling to understand exactly how it succeeded so well—especially with me, and my wary approach. It's an oxymoron. Nothing seems to occur within a physical narrative reality, yet it's about reality, like it exists in a metaphysical plane of thought, mind, and personality. It explores truths about existence, relationships, time, and life, and it captures in the most deeply real sense I've ever experienced from film, how it FEELS to be... well, a person.

As to narrative, it is there. I could tell you about what physically happens, step by step, and leave you totally clueless to the actual content of the movie, a fact that I find fascinating. Its true narrative—the meat and reason the story exists—only exists through implication. Implication of physical action, character dialogue, and a masterful use of filmmaking technicalities such as editing. Without great editing, the story would fall apart. Direction and attention to detail is also vital. The details must be noticeable, but the audience shouldn't feel coddled. There's great skill in the balance struck. The steady decline into the Weird is smooth and disarming. And the implication rendered is so strong—that's what stands out to me now, though none of it took place explicitly on screen.

Guy Boyd as the Janitor is also worth mentioning. Not much screen time, but extremely impactful.

What's more appropriate than that a disembodied story should leave a disembodied impression? Nor could many things be more difficult to accomplish in the medium of film. I always knew that weird, interpretable films could be among the squalor of cinema—lazy platitudes of vapid boredom are all too common. Now I know they can also be the exact opposite, if, like with all quality films, the construction is up to the challenge of the design. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is one such edifice; a thoroughly involving effort of filmmaking, brimming with fascination and substance; crafted with sincerity and the talent of a unique mind. And yeah, it's super-duper weird, too!