It could be said that Charlie Kaufman’s early career as a screenwriter was lackluster. Throughout the 1990s, he wrote for several short-lived television sitcoms—the longest of which lasted only two seasons before being cancelled—and submitted spec scripts (unsolicited screenplays sent by writers to studios and producers in hopes of having them purchased and produced) wherever he could. For all the work he put into his craft, Kaufman’s sometimes baffling approach to writing—which includes dreamlike, fantastical, and experimental elements blended with introspective examinations of life, art, and death—was not an easy thing to translate into a twenty-two-minute situational comedy or sketch show, and so he remained mostly obscure for much of the decade. It would seem the world was not yet ready for Charlie Kaufman and his unique brand of storytelling.
Things began to change when, in 1996, Kaufman found himself at the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, who, through the Hollywood grapevine, had received one of his spec scripts. Coppola passed on the film, but handed the screenplay off to his then son-in-law, skateboard and music video director Spike Jonze. Finally finding someone who understood his point of view, Kaufman and Jonze set off to make Being John Malkovich, a film that would not only become the biggest surprise hit of 1999 (and earn Oscar nominations for both director and writer) but propel its creators to the forefront of “in-demand” talent.
More praise followed as Kaufman penned another hit for Jonze (2002’s Adaptation, for which Kaufman won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay) and two films for fellow eccentric Michel Gondry (Human Nature in 2001 and the immensely successful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004, for which he won another Oscar, this time for Best Original Screenplay). These films would cement Kaufman’s reputation as Hollywood’s go-to guy for “weird” scripts, but the industry was still wary of anything they did not fully understand.
In 2008, Kaufman, now considered bankable after multiple awards and nominations, made his directorial debut with the wonderfully heartbreaking and deeply philosophical Synecdoche, New York—a film that split critics and was a substantial box office failure. However, Kaufman’s innate ability to ponder unanswerable questions and examine human nature, art, and loneliness with wit and uneasy self-reflection caused many to hail the film as a masterpiece. Roger Ebert even called it the best movie of the decade, and rightly so.
Kaufman’s next directorial effort, 2015’s Anomalisa, saw the writer and director delve into the world of stop-motion animation while continuing his exploration of loneliness and self-doubt. Anomalisa, while a disappointment at the box office, garnered considerable critical praise, furthering Kaufman’s stature as a thoughtful, if perplexing, cinematic auteur.
Up to and including Anomalisa, the films of Charlie Kaufman, as odd or abstract as they are, have always been grounded in a setting or world that is recognizably a version of the one we inhabit. For example, in Being John Malkovich a failed puppeteer goes through a mysterious door and winds up in the body of the titular Malkovich—something that is clearly farcical. But, as strange as this is, it still happens in a world with rules, even if those rules are modified from what we may consider “normal.” Synecdoche, New York mostly takes place on the set of an ever-growing stage production that eventually recreates a life-sized chunk of New York City, and includes layers of meta-casting to represent actors who represent actors, who represent actors, and on down the line. However, as absurd and convoluted as the production gets, and how lost in it its participants become, it still has roots in a world that is easily defined as our own.
In his latest film, 2020’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman establishes this same format—that we have entered a world made of comprehensible, if a bit off-kilter rules—then unapologetically smashes that format to pieces before our eyes.
In his latest film, 2020’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman establishes this same format—that we have entered a world made of comprehensible, if a bit off-kilter rules—then unapologetically smashes that format to pieces before our eyes. He then cleverly puts it all back together to form a new, more enlightened picture than the one we started with, and in doing so, creates a deceptively coherent narrative—even if that isn’t exactly clear until the film’s final shot.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things can be a frustrating puzzle to piece together, but all its pieces do have somewhere to go and operate in service to the bigger picture, making it one of the most vibrant, morbid, and rewarding films of the year.
As with many films rooted in cinematic experimentalism, I’m Thinking of Ending Things has the power to unsettle as we search for clues and meanings. Our natural inclination is to make sense of what we are seeing through the standard filters and lenses we have grown accustomed to consuming our art through, but sometimes those filters don’t readily apply—at least not at first glance. I’m Thinking of Ending Things can be a frustrating puzzle to piece together, but all its pieces do have somewhere to go and operate in service to the bigger picture, making it one of the most vibrant, morbid, and rewarding films of the year.
As an auteur, Kaufman has little interest in holding an audience’s hand through his stories. Often, his films defy concrete explanation, something which suits him just fine. Allowing an audience to project their own self onto a film, thus altering its meaning, is a rare gift among artists, and something that is perhaps not so coincidentally explored in his films. However, even at their most esoteric, cinema begs for interpretation. As moviegoers, we crave meaning and order—we need things to make sense to us. These phenomena often create inner narratives that might not jibe with the intent of the filmmaker, but are nonetheless valid. The meanings we glean from films can and should be personal because we, as individuals, matter. There are no wrong answers, especially when it comes to a Charlie Kaufman movie. My interpretation of I’m Thinking of Ending Things may very well differ from yours. In fact, I hope it does.
Kaufman has a knack for getting to the root of male insecurity in ways that are unique in the film industry. It could be that his films are highly stylized autobiographical accounts of his own hang-ups, or that he’s simply better tuned into the male psyche than most. But whatever his secret is, his ability to peer into the minds of men and mine for honest explanations about their fears and inadequacies is unparalleled. In this regard, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no different, even if it appears to be for much of the movie.
The film begins with a young woman on her way to meet her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. As she waits to be picked up, her inner dialogue informs us that Jake, her boyfriend of six or seven weeks (played by Jesse Plemons), is a nice guy but she can’t envision a future with him. Thus, she’s thinking of ending things. Soon, Jake and the young woman (played by Jessie Buckley, in one of the year’s best performances) are in the car and on their way to the secluded farmhouse where he grew up. As the snow flies around them, whiting out their surroundings, they begin a long conversation.
Through their talk of poetry, art, and literature, it becomes clear that they are both educated and well-versed (perhaps overly so), but there is something bordering on hostility lying in wait just under their words. Jake seems tense and anxious around his girlfriend, but also, at times, defiantly pompous and arrogant. The situation becomes even more uncomfortable as the young woman’s inner thoughts about ending things continue, only to be interrupted, right on cue, by awkward questions or assertions from Jake. With her train of thought now broken, she feels obliged to indulge Jake in whatever mundanity he feels like talking about. She isn’t meek or a pushover, but she is polite, and it’s clear that placating fragile men is nothing new to her.
Kaufman sets the film up as an awkward break-up story, but as the day turns to evening, and then into night, who is breaking up with who, why, and how becomes muddied, surreal, and entirely unnerving. Some will guess early on what is really happening (if such a thing can be agreed upon), others might take longer (my wife had it mostly figured out before I did), but as the oddities and eccentricities compound, I’m Thinking of Ending Things quickly and decisively morphs into much more than the story of a girl breaking up with a boy—it becomes a warning about the fragility of the male ego, the entitlement that comes with male privilege, and the psychological havoc caused when these forces collide.
I believe what Kaufman and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is telling us is that, as a whole, the male of the species is unremarkable and has not earned its place at the top of the social order.
I believe what Kaufman and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is telling us is that, as a whole, the male of the species is unremarkable and has not earned its place at the top of the social order—that the façade men wear is thin and easily transparent to anyone who would care to look. And that underneath this façade lies a mass of insecurity spawned by the instinctual knowledge that they are nothing more than average. He’s telling us that arrogance and obstinance are dead ends, and he’s telling us that there is always someone out there cleverer than you. A hard pill to swallow for many men, no doubt. Whether Kaufman’s intent with I’m Thinking of Ending Things is to wake men up to their unhealthy dependencies, or whether he’s simply confessing his own, is up for debate. But for me, either way, the point is well taken.