The other night, I shot awake as if though I was having a nightmare. I was not, though I had a feeling of unease. Mostly it was because my mind was racing. It had been overstimulated earlier that evening and could not settle itself down. Needless to say, I had just watched Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things before I went to bed. I will not be spoiling anything specifically in this piece, but I do have to talk about my overarching feelings about the film. To say anything of the plot is to spoil it. Then again, to say it has a plot almost feels inaccurate. That’s part of what unsettled my mind. It’s also why, when I woke up, my feelings on the film had changed.
When I watched I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I was really enjoying it. I felt like it was clearly the best movie I had seen of 2020, and perhaps the first great movie I’ve seen since Knives Out. Which, admittedly, only came out less than a year ago. The film was washing over me. It has some amazing set pieces. I was gripped, but I was also in the moment. Once the movie ended, and my brain started working, my opinion quickly began to unravel.
I have seen people reviewing I’m Thinking of Ending Things and saying that they didn’t get it, and they usually say they aren’t “smart enough” to understand it. To me, people are being unfair to themselves. You are not at fault. The issue with I’m Thinking of Ending Things is that there is nothing to get. It’s barely a narrative film. It’s not even a series of set pieces, though there are set pieces. They are not individual stories, but they also sort of are. There is no sense to be made of the film. It’s not a complicated puzzle box. It’s a bunch of stuff happening and you are, as I was, along for the ride. As long as you noticed the few things that are amiss, you got everything there was to get. Kaufman doesn’t tip his hand or anything. He doesn’t need, or want, to do that. He is a filmmaker doing whatever he feels like, and he has no interest in telling a story or doing anything conventional.
That’s his business, but it also doesn’t make his movie “smart,” and certainly not “too smart” for the audience. I saw the film, and as I processed it I realized things that happened here and there, but other things there was no answer for. I was not frustrated with myself because of this. I had not missed something. I was, to the degree I felt any frustration, frustrated with Kaufman for his personal choices. I prefer a film with an actual narrative. I also prefer characters who are actual characters. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is still the best movie of 2020 I have seen so far. It still has some amazing visuals, and two scenes so boldly ambitious and distinct I truly found them amazing. It’s also totally opaque and impenetrable. The movie considers that a feature. I consider it a bug.