I had no intention of writing about Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which I watched over the weekend. In fact, having been discouraged by the trailer with its seemingly affected aesthetic and almost comic timing, I nearly didn’t watch the film at all – but acquiesced after some new information reignited my hope.
I enjoyed the movie vastly more than I expected to, but it seems too strong to say that I felt disturbed while watching it. More like intrigued and challenged and determined to crack it, like a puzzle. The morning after, I read a few reviews to fill in my inevitable single-viewing gaps, and I was fairly satisfied.
But then something changed. With things as they are – a cluster of gathering uncertainties, an insular pandemic winter approaching, a narrow window of daylight, identical surroundings for work and leisure – a strange unease took up residence in my chest and the movie began to haunt me.
So now, for a few minutes, I am going to write about it.
Once again, the film is an ambitious (some would say arduous) undertaking chock full of ideas and allusions. So I won’t attempt too broad a focus here (especially when gems like this and this are already out there). Instead, I’ll zero in on how the film strips away our ability to find comfort in the familiar.
When I was a kid, a BBC version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper absolutely demolished me (and cemented me as a psychological horror fan). Of course the knockout blow was how fixtures of the everyday became untrustworthy and sinister.
ITOET, too, has some pretty overwhelming wall décor. Though Kaufman’s chosen designs don’t move or devour, they do have a strong presence and serve as a powerful and disorienting backdrop for the more animated oddities, like a family dog who shakes off the wet weather and then keeps right on shaking, as if in seizure. Then there’s the dinner conversation that starts off believably awkward but becomes laced with stream-of-consciousness and non-sequiturs, sometimes straying to the verge of hysteria (I’m reminded of the meal in Eraserhead where unspoken psychological tension culminates in unsightly seepage from the cavity of a roast chicken).
The familiar becoming uncanny and/or unsafe is a perfect device for failed relationship tales, in which a mate is not a soft place to fall but rather someone unknowable, unpredictable, who may cause you harm. And signifiers like these feel especially resonant in quarantine, when the sameness around you becomes less genial than grating.
I’ll also mention that, befitting its notes of Great Plains tragedy, ITOET also shouts out to another unsettling staple of my childhood: Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World.” I used to dwell often on the relevant page of a heavy art book, tormented by the painting’s facelessness, its ambiguity, its absence of narrative. The anxiety it triggered was not unlike that I felt when Kaufman’s young couple first arrived at the farm. Bathed in the white light of morning, it seems everything should be just fine – but we know intuitively that it’s not.
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