If I had to describe the experience of watching i’m thinking of ending things, it would be like a feeling of falling out of love gradually, with a love that was never really there.
Charlie Kaufman’s newest film, released yesterday directly to Netflix, has perhaps the simplest plot narrative of all of his works. There are no portals into the brains of famous actors, no internally mirrored dioramas of theatre sets, no collapsing memory palaces. Essentially, the film is just the story of a woman, apathetic towards her boyfriend, taking a road trip with him in a blizzard to meet his parents.
It is onto the mundanity of this plot that Kaufman hangs perhaps his most emotionally complex film to date in which he explores connection, disconnection, and the loneliness of dreams and thought. It’s a lot about time too, the pressure of it pushing forwards whilst tethering to monuments in its past, a pressure symbolised by the transparent allegory of the road trip. Early on, before the dark tone of the film is fully established, Jake (Jesse Plemons) says of the view: “It’s why I like road trips. It’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than the inside of your own head.” But the shot of the scene proves anything but this, always constricting itself narrowly to the two passengers of the car so the large world is cut out and made stationary, set-like.
The film waltzes around the three main characters, the janitor, Jake and his girlfriend. In the various iterations of the same scenes, Jake mutates from blandly boyish, to sensitively bookish, to threateningly bitter flashed with infantile, explosive outbursts. Jake’s sense of self is recurrently retrospective, nostalgic for a lost idyll of childhood whilst also defined by an embarrassment at memories of unpopularity at school and dreams given up on. Often, he references Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ but I am reminded rather of Seshadri’s line from his poem ‘Memoir’: “The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations”.
Then there’s his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley); Lucy, Lucia, or Louisa, who may be a scientist, a poet, an artist, a waitress. As always with Kaufman, it’s hard to pin down precisely why her characterisation has such raw and bleeding edges. Perhaps, she’s a projection of Jake’s unconscious, a morphing idol so that he can test himself against her, or perhaps it is because of her paradoxical fragmentations that to the film’s watcher she feels the most authentic and emotionally available. Then, the janitor, who despite only being introduced three-quarters of the way through, is instantly central, supplanting in importance the other two, absorbing them even. Close to the end of the film Jake and Lucy are entirely replaced by ballet dancing doppelgangers who perform choreographer Peter Walke’s vision of the plot of the musical Oklahoma! (bear with it- weirdly, it works). By the end of the dance, it is hard to fully recall the faces of Plemons and Buckley; they slip passively into a shadowy realm of forgetfulness.
The film operates upon loops of concentric repetition; thus echoes of memory are motifs that are continually returned to in the script, the set design and the music. The film is laced with barely traceable cultural references- ‘American Gothic’ by Grant Wood, the Nobel Prize speech in ‘A Beautiful Mind’, and archetypes of scenes from horror films which are allowed to just dangle in the narrative, unresolved. After the excruciating family dinner, Jake’s father says to Lucy: “my memory is going, early sign of…” “Alzheimer’s? Dementia?” “I think that’s it” “I’m looking forward to when it gets very bad so that I don’t have to remember that I can’t remember anything!”. The scene is scored by the haunting compositions of Jay Wadley, a soundscape reminiscent of The Caretaker’s album ‘Everywhere at the End of Time’ which also uses music to articulate the temporal process of losing memory.
Each of the three protagonists is sewn into one another painfully as speech and ideas overlap between them, making one wonder at times if they are all one and the same. Lucy recites a poem in the car to Jake that she has supposedly just written, only to then find it printed in a book in his childhood bedroom. Lucy tells Jake’s parents about her landscape paintings and how human sadness can seep into nature even when there is no one there; later, Jake says as he looks at the view “everything is tinged, coloured by mood, by emotion, by subjective experience. There is no objective reality. You know there’s no colour in the universe? Only in the brain”. For all this stifled overlap, there is a terrible, terrifying chasm of misunderstanding amongst them. Much as the couple are startlingly able to hear each other’s thoughts forwards and backwards in time and hint at their interior selves through literary references, neither can speak to one another, give comfort or evade the cold loneliness that buffets them like the blizzard they drive through.
One thing is for sure, neither of the three protagonists, nor the parents, nor the terrifying waitresses in the 1950s diner on the side of the road, are on the same page as each other. To be honest, the film isn’t on the same page as itself either; unless that page is a Möbius strip. Kaufman’s vision is as beautiful as it is terrifying; a stark and abstract exposé of people’s disingenuous self-fashioning of character and story.