Charlie Kaufman’s preference for individual interpretation over remedial explanation won’t surprise anyone who has stuck with the filmmaker over the last 20 years — from his Oscar-darling scripts as high-concept as they were high-anxiety (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to bitter, jittery jeremiads about the pain of existence like Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s dense directorial debut, or Anomalisa, an astonishing adaptation of his sixth sense for suffering into stop-motion animation.
Narrative truth is similarly immaterial next to any introspective wisdom you derive from Kaufman’s latest ontological onslaught, i’m thinking of ending things (now available to stream on Netflix). But this funny, brutal, sad, beautiful and unforgettable magnum opus insists that you self-interrogate to a degree unlike any other Kaufman effort before it. To that end, the very act of assessing things seems like self-ensnarement in the fateful traps that befall its characters — a Möbius strip of analytical misery. Certainly, things is brain-rewiring cinema — twisting some circuits together for the better, yanking out others, leaving them forever unplugged and sparking into the ether for … well, if not necessarily, worse, certainly a considerable difference.
(So much for an early bedtime on the evening I watched it. Or shaking its remnants during the morning after. While driving and marveling once more over the new Taylor Swift, a disheveled woman emerged from a gloomy fog in a clearing — holding a gas can to fill up her stalled-out car. No such moment happens in things itself, but this eerie sight flooded my mind with vivid recollections of its chilling, but charitable, nature. Why, you ask? Who knows? My take is my take. Yours is yours. And never the twain shall meet. Or perhaps they will.)
In other words: Netflix’s number crunchers are going to lean hard — like “the very structural integrity of statistical analysis” kind of hard — on “watched two minutes” toward the overall viewership numbers on this one. The ubiquitous streamer might throw up a lot of terrible tripe week in and week out. But with The Irishman, Da 5 Bloods, Roma and now things, no other competitor is as comfortable letting directors rip with immense ideas on incredible canvases. Can they be forgiven Extraction and Desperados if they also regularly serve up such gourmet banquets? Absolutely.
On its face, things sounds like an algorithm-friendly Meet the Parents, as a woman (Jessie Buckley) accompanies her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), on a snowy ride to meet his folks, Dean (David Thewlis) and Suzie (Toni Collette), for the first time. She’s only been with Jake for six weeks, but it feels like forever and not in the doe-eyed way. The title comes from her internal-monologue debate about ending the relationship before it progresses too far to stop. That phrasing, and Buckley’s incessant repetition, renders it a ceaseless fermata of contemplation rather than action … and a clue that this film’s many possible paths do not include jokes about male nurses named Gaylord or milking Robert De Niro.
Still, she can indulge just this one night with Jake’s parents, right? She’ll probably never have to see them again anyway. Besides, “road trips are good,” Jake says, to help you see that “the world is larger than the inside of your own head.” Jake means well when he says that. But the metronomic rhythm of his dingy car’s windshield wipers, winding down to worn and nubby gears under a relentless snowstorm, seems like a bad harbinger of his romantic prospects.
But Jake’s girlfriend soon sees a distressingly shiny swing set in front of a dilapidated house. The pigs on roadside billboards begin speaking to her with the voice of character actor Oliver Platt. She’s besieged by phone calls that seem to come from herself. And Suzie and Dean … well, there’s a sickly pall and emotional scoliosis to their halted-rhythm giggles, verbal bastardizations and bowdlerizations and their left-field digs at Billy Crystal. (Ever a pop-culture satirist, Kaufman’s target practice also rounds up a Best Picture Oscar winner and a director whose invocation represents the perfect punchline to a joke he’s in on, if the film’s thank-you credits are any indication.)
From there, things assumes the shape of a novel in cinematic form — and not only because Kaufman has adapted Iain Reid’s 2016 book of the same name here. (He may or may not leave its twist intact. He definitely inverts it.) This is fiction that feels detailed, descriptive, elliptical and often elusive until the final snippet of prose — which still leaves you so much to unpack.
On one hand, things might be Kaufman’s most resolutely inaccessible work — no easy crown to claim for anyone who saw Synecdoche. It’s edited to purposefully discombobulating and disconcerting rhythms of a horror film — intended to trigger your internal recoil — and rendered all the chillier by cinematographer Łukasz Żal’s (Cold War) depiction of that genre’s familiar tropes (decaying flesh, inexplicable hallucinations, creepy basements, oppressive weather and barren plains). The 45-minute segment that unfolds at Jake’s parents’ house — which opens wounds at the pace of a hand slowly scraped along barbed wire — lets scary solipsism and solitude creep up on your perception, creep into your psyche and creep you way the hell out. Watched on mute, things might play like time-loop horror that’s all the more terrifying for its embrace of real-life frights. Or maybe a haunted-house story … for what better metaphor than life’s existential mystery than big, drafty houses with dark, dank basements that beckon?
But to use its own parlance: Where things winds up might render it Kaufman’s most specifically universal story yet (although it may hit you differently depending on how you designate your relationship status). If a good portion of its 133 minutes feel like an anxiety attack, at least it’s one that understands some semblance of peace awaits on the other side of panic. Certainly, things is a puzzle box in regard to the reliability of its narrator(s) and sometimes in regard to whose subconscious is in freefall. More than that, it’s a parable about our human programming relative to the rest of the animal kingdom. Annihilation awaits us all. Only we have the pain of knowing that, and thus we complicate our response with sweet distractions and delusions — emotional impulses and chemical inclinations that keep us whistling past the graveyard even as that tune devolves into an atonal, howling wind. A more cynical filmmaker would finger-point us as fools for chasing such bread and circus. But Kaufman neither begrudges nor bemoans the pursuit of happiness, even if it’s a settled-upon affectation rather than a true state of mind. Instead, Kaufman simply demands that you see how joy can often be a mirage to someone’s real melancholy — contextualizing the idea with a clarity about death none of us can avoid.
And yet for all of its considerable portent, things reminds us that the tortured fella who wrote this thing lives in the real world right along with us. For example: Charlie Kaufman has clearly been to a Dairy Queen enough times to know that if the cashier doesn’t flip your Blizzard to indicate its frozen bonafides, it’s free. There’s also ample room for playfulness with interludes of animation, song and dance, some arriving at a point of intimidation or sadness but always with elegance and artistry. (The dream sequence of Oklahoma! is incorporated not once, but twice — the first time in a clumsily sweet expression of youthful exuberance, the second through interpretive dance among adults that’s meticulously choreographed by Peter Walker. Both end with a stumble that has formidable consequences.) Kaufman also seamlessly folds the debate on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” into his complex meditation on coercion and complicity — but also comfort and compassion — in the relationships that we have or hope for (even if we just wear ourselves down into believing in the good stuff rather than knowing it in our bones).
Here, too, is another one of Kaufman’s essential questions: Are your thoughts and philosophy your own or simply a compendium of the culture that you curate and consume for yourself? The flood of references here — from David Foster Wallace and William Wordsworth to John Carpenter and Rodgers & Hammerstein — feel a bit like Vanilla Sky with Kubrick’s chill. These moments are tinged with intellectualism but rooted in the isolation that can come from an inability to close the book, switch off the TV and fill silence with more than the stories of fictional characters. Like Synecdoche, things investigates art as our tool to rise above the mundane. But in lieu of its application to creative fulfillment and artistic legacy, Kaufman looks at how we use culture (high and low) in our process to connect — with someone, anyone, even ourselves. Does considering that every new beginning coming from some other beginning’s end just make you think of that damn Semisonic you were never able to extract from your head? Well, that’s part of Kaufman’s aim here. Certainly a line that seems to sum up the film quite well, in addition to its withering wit: “Our passions are someone else’s quotation …that’s an Oscar Wilde quote.”
While it would seem impossible to collapse a lifetime’s worth of emotion and expression into one movie, Buckley and Plemons do so in career-best turns. (Thewlis, Colette and Guy Boyd, portraying a pivotal character on the film’s fringes, also help to sell this alternating alchemy of contentment and dread.) Kaufman might be winking with his same-first-name casting, but these are expertly matched performers. And you’ll sit in wide-eyed wonder at what they accomplish during what is, for the most part, a two-hander in a car’s front seat. Through micro-expressions and in milliseconds, Buckley and Plemons nigh-invisibly pivot into different personae — sometimes craven, sometimes kind, always perfectly illustrative of how even the best interpersonal relationships can devolve into pursuits of control and illusions of power. Plemons is initially deferential, proud and congenial. Buckley establishes early sass, paranoia and skepticism. How the actors volley these traits, and so many more, back and forth between them throughout things evokes the symbolic nature of their, or any, coupling.
Buckley in particular delivers one of the most recognizably human and troubled turns there’s ever been from a film character forced — whether by compulsion or convenience — into a construct of how she thinks she should behave from moment to moment. You see it in her emotional contagion at dinner with Dean and Suzie, a good sport to make a good impression. You sense it crackle as she outstrips Jake in a contest to critically elucidate a John Cassavetes film. You hear the light footfalls of her retreat as her sling and arrows grow too overwhelming for Jake to bear. You worry for her well-being when roadside buildings seem to sneak up on her as if materialized from thin air. You feel her burrow into your soul with one cleverly broken fourth wall. Kaufman might have his reasons for never giving us a full (or at least trustworthy) picture of who Buckley is portraying, but hers is the greatest performance from an actress in 2020.
In case it wasn’t glaringly obvious, things is a film for which literalist scolds or superficial horror buffs might as well see themselves out right now. Fans of David Lynch will find common ground, although there is definitely scaffolding to the story here that runs counter to Lynch’s dreamlike sensation of synapses sparking during slumber. There is also a definition to the destination at which Kaufman arrives. But does that place exist in the real world? In someone’s mind? On a symbolic plane of unspoken anger and anxiety between Jake and his girlfriend? All three?
If you’ve read this far and feel like things is a film at which you’ll just throw up your hands …well, you might. And that’s OK. Were Kaufman for everyone, he wouldn’t only be making new films every five years. But in this, handily the best film of 2020 so far, Kaufman also communicates his commanding understanding of the fables and feelings with which we fill our lives, and fantasies, in the futile effort to somehow live above death. And what is the ultimate hail mary for such an effort if not the pursuit of love — even if it’s a love confined to the flights of our own minds? i’m thinking of ending things is a densely internalized work that regularly erupts into relatable moments of wonder and terror that anyone can understand — whether perpetually together or forever alone. Charlie Kaufman has not lost his flair for taking the piss, but he’s found a way to take some comfort, too — cold as it may be.