I once had a math teacher tell me that any book that has to be read more than once to be understood isn’t a good book. At the time, I was not sure I agreed with her. If you asked me a few years ago, I would definitely have disagreed. Today, I am not so sure. To be fair, it was in the context of non-fiction, and in that case I can agree (with the qualification that the reader must be prepared for and engaged with the text), but later she implied that she thought the same applied not only to fiction but to art in general. Here is an interesting and confounding question: does good art need to be understood on the first read, or watch, or glance, in order to be considered good? This, of course, opens the floodgates to an infinite amount of questions about the question. The one I find most interesting, however, is this: Can art be understood at all?
In Roger Ebert’s review of Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 directorial debut, he posits, “It’s not that you have to return to understand it. It’s that you have to return to realize how fine it really is.” I imagine he would say something similar about Kaufman’s new film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It has neurotic characters and is set in a reality that slowly peels away the external to reveal the internal. It’s bleak and anxiety-inducing, enveloping you in the headspace of its protagonist. But it is also different from Synecdoche: quieter, more focused, and at a smaller, more intimate scale. It is fitting, then, that it premiered on Netflix (sad as that may be to a cinephile such as myself), that the aspect ratio is 4:3, that shots are almost always static, and that colors tend to be cold and muted. Perhaps it is the opposite of Synecdoche: the revelation of the internal as opposed to the external.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things centers on a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who is considering ending her relationship with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). She ponders this idea and many others while driving to meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) for the first time. She likes Jake enough, but feels like there is something off with him, or her, or perhaps simply with their relationship, which is why she is thinking of ending things.
As it turns out, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is one of the most terrifying films I have ever seen. Not that it is a horror film – it is just that the neuroticism of the characters spills over into the mood, tone, and eventually the plot. The first time viewer will look for solace in the seemingly straightforward story, until it becomes obvious that this film is not really a story at all. All narratives, by necessity, exist in a framework that relates characters to time. I’m Thinking of Ending Things rejects that framework. Instead of letting the characters pass through scenes in a linear or non-linear way, it quickly becomes apparent that that is not how time works in this film (though on a first viewing, this may not become apparent until about halfway through). The young woman describes it in an internal monologue: “We’re stationary and time passes through us, blowing like a cold wind, leaving us chapped and frozen.” As viewers, we see time pass through each of the characters differently, and like wind, it blows back and forth. At one moment Jake’s parents are middle-aged; at another, they are near death; and at still another, one is old while the other is young. Yet we view the unfolding of events in a linear way: Jake and his girlfriend drive to his parents’ farm, eat dinner, have dessert, and drive home. It is this rejection of narrative that lays the foundation of the film’s existential terror.
So what is I’m Thinking of Ending Things about? Can we understand it? At the very surface, as I touched on above, it is a film about love and the death of love between romantic partners. It is about the relationship between parents and children. It is about time and our time on this Earth: life and death. It is about hope and hopelessness. It is about misogyny, misandry, and misanthropy. Ultimately, it is about the human material that we are made up of, set in a godless stretch of the human psyche. Can it be understood? Only so much as you put into it. And perhaps that’s the extent to which art can be understood: it is a reflection of the self and the efforts which you put into understanding it. As Jake says, “Everything is tinged.” Even the outside world of our reality is perceived, processed, and understood in a way unique to each individual. One person might look up at the sky and see a cloud that looks like Darth Vader’s helmet, while another person might think the same cloud looks like the Energizer Bunny. Neither person is wrong, and it is the same when trying to understand a work of art. Good art is like a mirror that reflects certain thoughts and values of its viewer. Great art not only reflects the viewer, but makes him keenly aware that it is a mere reflection of the Truth inside himself. And this is what I’m Thinking of Ending Things does exceedingly well.