Do we need to worry about him?, said my husband two-thirds of the way through Charlie Kaufman’s new Netflix film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
It’s not that there is anything specific in Kaufman’s surreal descent into some kind of madness that you’re not totally sure about that is worrisome. In fact, he has covered these themes before in, well, most of his films.
But seldom has he ever got so mired in his clever muddle that you actually begin to question his wellness as an artist. Or just his wellness.
An original and bold thinker/writer/director, much of Kaufman’s work has always grappled with the internal craziness adrift in contemporary life.
In fact, his voice has often been a welcome respite for those of us who have grown so overtired at the escapism, gauzy coddling or sheer nihilism offered by most American movies these days.
Yet for decades, it has been apparent that in all of his major works – Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Synecdoche and Anomalisa – Kaufman has ultimately been firmly and indisputably in control of the narrative.
The issue with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, an often confounding marvel of fascinating film scenes, shots and sequences, is that Kaufman has gone so deep into the rabbit hole of self-reflection and insanity that he literally loses his perspective and takes us down along with him.
It’s like somehow you got a bum tour guide to an unearthly land but only realize it when you’re 3250 miles from the nearest phone, cell tower or landmark of anything resembling civilization.
One could argue that after pushing the narrative screenwriting boundaries just about as far as they could go this is the logical and appropriate spot for Kaufman to be in.
Certainly we’ve all been having a mass nervous breakdown the last few years, questioning anyone and everything while wondering if any of it ever even existed the way we thought it did.
And you thought we weren’t going to be political.
Well, yes and no, at least not outwardly.
Because when my husband turned to me on the couch and wondered aloud whether we should be worried about Charlie I was truly at a loss about what to say. It definitely wasn’t a firm ‘no,’ nor was it a confident ‘yes.’
Rather it was a maybe/I don’t know how I feel or how to answer this question. Or, more simply, the same answer I’ve seemingly been giving everyone the last three and a half years.
The difference is, of course, Kaufman’s new story is nothing as simple as the survival of a two and a half century old democracy. Instead, it’s essentially about a couple complexly yet forthrightly played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons (Note: One feels that casting two actors named Jessie/Jesse is another post modern Kaufman strategy to f-ck with our minds) driving back and forth in a car on a road trip during a snowstorm, with a middle section where they visit the male Jesse’s parents.
It’s not too far of a leap to state that it’s Kaufman’s belief that we’re all caught in our own perennial snowstorms, living life on a perilous road where an accident, or series of them, could happen at any moment.
All this, of course, takes place against an endless inner dialogue of our own insecurities and of our own making, played out through the words of the female Jessie, which we are loath to share with anyone lest they judge IT as crazy.
To end the monologue would mean to have to engage with a distasteful world that we know in our heart of hearts is indeed loony tunes, or at the very least unfair. So we (and she) continue with an inner dialogue that is sure to drive us (and anyone who would happened to listen – nee, the audience) totally and 100% certifiably insane.
This is the ultimate conundrum this latest iteration of Kaufman presents to us. That is, amid references to everything from John Cassavettes, A Woman Under the Influence and Pauline Kael, to soft serve ice cream, the musical Oklahoma!, life in high school and the English poet William Wordsworth.
Granted, it’s not for everyone, nor, like any of his other films, does it seem he intends it to be. That is what makes Kaufman the single most original and iconoclastic and recognizable screenwriting voice in the industry today.
It’s not that he doesn’t want us to see his movies, as evidenced by his availability for all kinds of media interviews. It’s that as a creative artist he is uniquely on his own road, letting his feelings and thoughts hang out in a very particularly way that first and foremost appeals to him. In short, in I’m Thinking of Ending Things Kaufman more than ever before doesn’t appear concerned what WE think or even whether WE can easily follow what he’s offering.
He’s simply serving up his inner mind and demons as they are in a three-act dramatic structure of his own design. And, like the dinner with the parents set piece of this new work, it’s for us to decide whether we want to devour it whole and get drunk on the menu or turn our nose up at what’s being offered and starve because we fear our stomachs will be upset, or our sensory responses will get forever messed up, by the conflicting smells emanating from the table if we sit there too long and indulge.
Not unlike the feelings you get when you open a newspaper (Note: Either physically or virtually) or turn into cable news these days. Do you stay or do you go? And if you do stay, for how long and how deeply and to what effect or end?
In this meta way Kaufman seems to be on to something as the sole writer-director this time out. As is often the case with his artistry, it’s not so much about the plot but the existential questions being raised about life at this period of time as filtered through a particular world view – HIS world view.
That’s an area very few known filmmakers and/or artists are interested in or able to challenge us with right now and, as one great writer from the previous century so aptly put it, attention must be paid.
Or, well, at least it should be.
(Note: Okay, that writer was Arthur Miller re Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. And yeah, even using that type of theatrical metaphor is insidiously Kaufmanesque. One more piece of evidence of what will happen if YOU try too hard to attach your own significance to anything having to do with a creation of his).
So let’s not ponder anything more of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It will ruin the delightful torture of going a little deeper into your psyche than usual to figure out what the hell is truly going on in the latest story you are unwittingly being dragged into.
And if that’s not an exercise worth sitting through in the FALL of 2020 then, well, I don’t know what is.