Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Considering I almost gave up within the first 20 minutes and a few more times after that it's safe to say I didn't love the film, but there's some interesting stuff to chat about and in the end I would say that your mood will be a huge factor on if you enjoy this or just fall asleep.
ITOET is the newest film by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and it's based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Iain Reid. It's been a while since Kaufman's last project so a lot of people were eager for this one, and overall critics reviews are positive (83% on Rotten Tomatoes), while the audience reviews are lukewarm-ish (47%). It's very obvious why this is the case.
Minor spoilers ahead, I'll avoid straight up explaining everything cause I just don't feel like it.
The story follows a young (unnamed) woman as she goes on a road trip with her boyfriend to meet his parents. Throughout the film she narrates, often saying she's thinking of ending things (somewhat inferred, with him). Along the way, they talk pedantically about things a general audience won't care about and then recite poetry, the entire process taking about twenty minutes and testing any sane person's patience.
It's worth noting that I'm at a certain point where I always have captions on for virtually everything I watch these days. Partially it's to make sure I don't mis-comprehend as I can be distracted by too many noises, and also to just help me focus a bit. Seriously, I would have had a much harder time with the Expanse and their made-up future languages if it wasn't for captions, and the same goes for this film. There's just enough inane chatter that I'm sure is supposed to be quirky and character driven that if I didn't not have the aid in captions I would have been frustrated enough to shut the movie off.
So, the couple make it to the house, and then the sequence with the parents hits and this is where things shine a bit more.
The film drops a few early hints that things are not ok as far as our character's perceptions and what makes up reality, but they remove any doubt that this is what the film is about by the time we get to the parents farm. Things quickly start to unravel with the parents, and we start to experience odd jumps where the parents age and de-age, the dog is stuck in a mini-time loop, dinner miraculously appears, and so on.
Judging from a lot of reviews I've read, I think this is where people lost some patience but it's honestly where more of the horror starts to show up. It's a subtle horror, more to do with human despair and the slow march of time and loneliness, and that's where the film really strikes a chord. There are some truly depressing overtones working their way through the film as the mind of the boyfriend, Jake, comes more into focus.
One thing I really want to mention is that there's a lot of praise for the two main actors, Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons. While I appreciate their acting in the film, I absolutely loathe both of their characters and not in an engaging way. On the other hand the parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, were absolutely amazing and really drove home their mental distress and pain.
There's a parallel story happening throughout the film that follows a janitor for a local high school. I have a difficult time figuring out if I felt like there needed to be more of his story to connect things or less because his presence informs the main revelation a little early.
After the main characters leave the parents home we are forced to sit through Jessie Buckley reciting film critic Pauline Kael's review of John Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence. This, along with the earlier poetry and a few other instances of recycled media, all play a part in informing us of the state of Jake. My problem is that we have to sit through what felt like 15-20 minutes of a review of another movie from a character stuck in a car in a snowstorm. These moments are like hitting a narrative brick wall without the mercy of being snuffed out by the impact.
One element I definitely can not fault though is the cinematography.
There are some truly beautiful scenes in this film, the visual landscape alternating from a barren winter farmland, cold ominous hallways full of loneliness, and other voids of emptiness as our characters traverse locations that are both claustrophobic and empty. There are numerous shots that are very chilling and speak volumes over the grating forced monologues.
I'm always on the fence when it comes to films that are less about a traditional linear narrative and play with different metaphors and analogies. I do enjoy a good mystery and trying to interpret these kind of films. Hell, there's even a dream ballet towards the end and I was actually pretty down with it, it was a really nicely choreographed piece.
Still, there's a certain line when your experimental narrative trips over itself in its attempts to be intellectual and just feels obnoxious. Because I'm sorry, I just don't know who William Wordsworth or Eva H. D. are (I mean I do now, so thanks?), and I haven't seen A Woman Under the Influence and I definitely don't give a crap about Oklahoma the musical, so it was a bit of a task to not mentally check out for a bit. I can't even imagine seeing this in a theater as forty minutes of the film would have been complete gibberish to me without the captions on.
There's however an idea here, or maybe more accurately a tapestry of emotions, that I did find compelling and I can appreciate the craftsmanship on display. While I would have to say it's not entirely my cup of tea, I'm open to the idea that I can get used to the bitterness of the tea and might even come to like it over time. Just seriously, ease up on the narrative brick walls.