As long as art has existed, artists have tried to use the visual medium as a means of showing audiences what it looks like inside the mind of severe depression. From Van Gogh to Next to Normal, we have always seen artists trying to use their own experiences and pain to show others what a depressed person sees on a daily basis, as a means of creating empathy. In the world of film, several directors have tried to visually craft the experience for outsiders, and many have found success, like Pink Floyd – The Wall and Melancholia. But no artist has better mined this realm quite like Charlie Kaufman. The famous comedic writer has explored depression since his earliest works, and has given us high highs in Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Anomalisa, as well as low lows, like the unbearable Synecdoche, New York. However, it was not until his newest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, that he achieved perfection. Not only does Ending Things capture the broken, fragmented mindset of someone barely hanging on by a thread, it does so while retroactively improving on some of Kaufman’s past works, including Synecdoche and the mostly-great Eternal Sunshine. In short, this is Kaufman’s magnum opus.
A young woman (Jessie Buckley) named Lucy…or maybe it’s Lucia…or Louisa… undergoes a road trip with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents. The two haven’t been dating long, and the young woman is already contemplating ending the relationship. The two discuss and debate everything, from art to science to musicals to movies along the way. Eventually, they reach his farmhouse, and almost immediately the young woman realizes something isn’t right. The family dog is acting weird. Childhood photos of the young woman appear on the walls. The mother (Toni Collette) seems a little off, while the father (David Thewlis) is overly forward. And the basement is covered in scratch marks and remains locked at all times. All the while, the young woman wants nothing more than to leave and to end the relationship, but everything seems to be standing in her way – the people she meets, the snowy conditions, and even time itself. And who is this strange janitor (Guy Boyd) we keep cutting to, and how does he fit into the narrative?
The one thing you can always count on in a Charlie Kaufman Film is that it will be About Something. Kaufman loves tackling big themes and ideas inside of whimsical, bizarre pseudo-comedies. Adaptation. is about the act of creation, Eternal Sunshine is about the uncontrollable nature of love, Synecdoche, New Yorkis about life and the unceasing nature of time, and Anomalisa is about the laws of attraction and a feeling of alienation in the modern world. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no exception, although its thematic elements are so much deeper than Kaufman’s previous works. Ending Things tackles, in no particular order: regret, aging, suicide, time, love, predestination, memory, and beyond. However, its deepest, purest metaphor is the way this film looks at depression. The young woman’s journey is a clear representation of when mental illness ruins a relationship, and while most of Kaufman’s films take a whimsically uplifting approach to such topics, Ending Things approaches the notion in all its messy, painful realities. The young woman is clearly suffering from a malaise, where not even the relationship can bring her joy in life, and this mental state clouds everything she sees and touches. Her inner monologue (a cinematic cliché I normally hate, but works here) offers up nihilistic takes on everything Jake says and does, whether he deserves it or not. It makes every encounter seem clouded in tension and anxiety. Nothing brings her joy in life – she finds the down side of every artistic or happy moment presented to her, whether it’s the musical Oklahoma!, gorgeous landscape paintings, or poetry (she’s instantly drawn to poems about death). And every action she takes feels repetitive and blasé – the snowy exterior of their car ride seems endless and hopeless, aided by its twenty minute runtime, while her monologues and one-sided conversations begin to grow repetitive. Any person who has suffered depression can relate to the unbreakable repetition and shrouding darkness surrounding every aspect of their life. Kaufman is showing us, through his writing, directing, and staging, exactly what it looks like when a person becomes unshakably despondent, and the significant toll that takes on a relationship.
However, if the film’s micro thematic message is that the young woman is suffering depression, then the macro theme is Jake’s inherent unhappiness in life, and the parallels the two journeys possess. It becomes clear rather quickly that the janitor we constantly witness is clearly some version of Jake, and once that connection is made, the film takes on a new level. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a glimpse inside the mind of a lonely, depressed individual dealing with his mental issues and lamenting his old age as his world crumbles around him. The surreal nature of the film is an embodiment of these breakdowns, and Kaufman projects them tragically and beautifully. Each time shift, each reflection on bullying, each realization of lost opportunity and missed connection is Jake’s mind and memory reacting to his broken mental state and failed life. We see every tragic loss, every moment of bullying, and an ultimate sense of missed opportunity permeating each and every frame – when Jake comments that he sometimes runs into past stars of the musicals in the supermarket, it’s a reflection on lives that possess promise and inevitably leave you stranded in your hometown. Characters comment throughout that, despite his promise and his intellect, he was constantly “closing himself off to the world,” and when we find a room littered with abandoned paintings, the message becomes clear. This is the story of all those individuals who had promise and had a chance to escape, and yet the circumstances of severe depression and the cruel, unfeeling nature of life kept them from achieving it. Kaufman portrays this story and the message brutally, commenting seamlessly on that futility of hope found in the truly depressed via a metaphor about “pigs being eaten alive by maggots.” In many ways, Ending Things is not only a companion piece to Synecdoche New York, it is a grand do-over that works in spades.
And Kaufman takes his voyage into the mind of melancholia even further, using art and discussions surrounding art to comment on fantasy and reality. For while the film’s proclivity to make references to poetry, music, philosophy, film, and beyond works as a great conversation piece for the characters, Kaufman uses these conversations on a deeper level, demonstrating the lonely conversations someone suffering depression goes through during severe isolation. The film carefully lets the characters discuss everything, from art to science to history and beyond the same way we all try to sift through this sh*t in our own minds, creating conversations to battle the loneliness, or to imagine a fictional scenario to replace our deepest regrets. It’s a coping mechanism that almost any person with depression will relate to, and if I’m being honest, hearing them discuss Oklahoma! – one of my favorite musicals – has me wondering if the reason I love this film so deeply is because it plays like a dark trip into the inner halls of my own damaged psyche. Kaufman is using these name drops and references to represent the “What Ifs” of a lonely, depressed individual, who was incapable of forming human connections and instead resorted to fake relationships and memories to cope. And when that illusion is shattered, there is only one tragic outcome. I won’t spoil what this outcome may be (not that I can – the film is somewhat impenetrable on first viewing without a working understanding of the book’s messaging), but considering Jake is constantly challenging the young woman’s assertion that “Everything wants to live. Even viruses,” and he is innately drawn to characters and authors like Jud Fry (complete with an iconic usage of “Lonely Room”) and David Foster Wallace, it’s a painfully obvious conclusion.
Along the way, Kaufman layers in metaphors and criticisms of society as a whole and its handling of depression, alongside some of the best damn filmmaking you’re going to see all year. Kaufman links in different allusions and references in the same way Shakespeare used to loop in thematic callbacks, and there’s rich material to mine in each reference to Wordsworth’s poetry, Biblical quotations, and my personal favorite, a book of reviews by Pauline Kael – there’s a terrific, subtle(ish) moment late in the film where a review is quoted in its entirety, serving as a commentary on the regurgitation of ideas and a condemnation of the fantastical fetishization of the “Dream Girl.” The film also offers up some of Kaufman’s nihilistic takes on life – a usage of the infamous Escher staircase becomes a commentary on the futility of life and the small town experience, while a hilariously bad (and humorously long) Robert Zemeckis rom-com serves as a critique of the way illusions of happiness in pop culture have created false expectations and devastating letdowns for the moviegoing populous. Hell, even Kaufman’s choice of actors seems symbolic – look closely at their names if you don’t believe me. But what impresses me most about Kaufman’s filmmaking is his across-the-board filmmaking. Kaufman has always had a knack for making things seem…off, and Ending Things is no exception. Whether it’s a shot that holds too long (Toni Collette waving in the window is one of the funniest and creepiest shots of the year), a well-placed edit to reveal that a dog doesn’t exist, isolating characters within the shot as they lament on the painful eternity of existence, or allowing music to crescendo at the most dramatic moments, Kaufman uses his skill as a director to force the audience into a state of unease, even as they can’t help but laugh at the intentional obviousness of the visual.
Meanwhile, alongside editor Robert Frazen, Kaufman seamlessly turns his world into a blended abomination of thoughts, images, characters, and beyond, each mirroring a broken dream landscape that works on a literal, metaphorical, and esoteric level. I mean, as obvious as the symbolism may be, it’s hard not to look at images of broken old men, abandoned swing sets, and empty, snowy fields and immediately connect to the feelings of isolation and melancholia that Kaufman’s trying to project. However, the film’s crowning achievement – and I hesitate at revealing exactly what the moment consists of – comes in a grandiose achievement of visual storytelling. In a five minute sequence near the end of the film, drawn directly from one of Kaufman’s greatest influences, Ending Things dazzlingly sums up its entire message about love, life, reality, illusion, depression, and death in a seamless, layered metaphor that shatters all preconceived notions about what this film – and art in general – can convey. It’s a brilliant, beautiful sequence that cemented my love for this film, and yet it is far from the only thing to love here. By the end, you may find yourself wondering what the genre actually was. Is Ending Things a horror? A drama? A comedy? If you want my humble opinion: who cares? Shut up and enjoy the ride.
In terms of the acting, it is hard to undersell just how perfect this ensemble truly is. Each actor fits into their role perfectly, and at times elevates the material. Take, for example, Jessie Buckley as the young woman. This is a difficult role to pull off, given its complex nature and the way the character fits into the story. I’d imagine that Kaufman’s writing only got the character a part of the way there, while the rest of the heavy lifting fell on Buckley’s charming, charismatic shoulders. She is what gives this role life, in all her mopey, mournful glory, and it is amazing how great she truly is in the role. Meanwhile, Plemons has the meatier role, and yet while his character is clearly stronger in the script, it’s still a damn challenging role to pull off, and he does so gracefully. He’ll charm you in Act I and crush you in Act III. And speaking of crushing you, Guy Boyd doesn’t have a whole lot to do as the janitor, and he may even disturb you for much of the film’s runtime. But I challenge you to watch his performance throughout the third act – particularly his conversation with Buckley’s character – and not become emotional. As for the parents, David Thewlis is excellent as Jake’s creepy father, but it is hard to focus on her performance thanks to the master class in scenery chewing Toni Collette is presenting. After the sheer campy joy that was Hereditary, Collette has found a niche in playing weird, Grand Guignol characters. And that’s exactly what she provides here, stomping through each scene making randomly inappropriate comments, hamming it up, and dramatically changing moods (and ages and eras) at the drop of the hat. She damn near steals the movie. There aren’t many characters outside of these five, but I do want to give a shout out to Gus Birney and especially Hadley Robinson – they make the ultimate high school mean girls, and Robinson has an impressive set of pipes to match. Oh, and while I can’t say who they play, exactly, special props to Ryan Steele, Unity Phelan, and Frederick Wodin. You’ll know who they are when you see them.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is the masterpiece that so many critics (including Roger Ebert) saw in Synecdoche New York. It is a daring representation of grief and depression, of loneliness and the failing of life, and it is an era-defining triumph. Now, I’ll admit right now that this film might not be for everyone. It’s hard to dissect the story without having read the book it’s based on. I probably wouldn’t understand the ending if I hadn’t read the book. And with all that’s going on in the world, I doubt most casual viewers want to watch a movie whose message can be best summed up in the line “It never gets any easier, life.” But I can’t stifle my praise. I’m Thinking of Ending Things posits that every piece of art is inherently abstract, as “your mood influences how you view the painting.” As someone who suffers depression, I am always impressed when an artist is able to convey my chemically imbalanced brain in creative detail, both as a way to feel less alone and for outsiders to understand what I’m going through. Kaufman has crafted what may be the quintessential depression film, and I feel more both more despondent and paradoxically optimistic because of it. After all, sometimes we just need an Animated Ghost Pig to look us in the eye and tell us “Some of us are just pigs infested with maggots. It’s the luck of the draw. Just accept it.”