A girl with no name is on a road trip with Jake (Jesse Plemons), her boyfriend of 6 weeks, to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) in the countryside. There is a snowstorm, and she wants to leave but their trip back to the city is always put off. Suddenly, things get weird and time turns into a jumbled knot. There is a dead pig eaten by maggots in the barn, a forbidden basement door full of scratch marks in his childhood home, the ghost of a dog long gone, a dying mother, a mysterious old janitor…
Sounds like a pretty good set-up for a horror film.
Charlie Kaufman’s latest feature is not horror in genre, but he puts forth the horrific possibility—in the most uncomfortable, surrealist way—that we could be living a lie.
By the trailer alone, one would think this was The Young Woman’s (Jessie Buckley) story, one that appears simple enough: wanting to end a relationship that, very early on, is established not to have gone on due to differences and tension, an irreconcilable awkwardness. That is until we realize she is not even given a name (one that sticks, anyway).
No, this isn’t her story. She isn’t even real.
She is Louisa, then Lucy, or Ames (short for Amy). A scientist of quantum physics, a poet, a painter, a waitress. She’s quick, smart, can recite Eva H.D.’s poem “Bone Dog” and Pauline Kael’s review of A Woman Under the Influence word for word. Most importantly and most intimately, she has a mind Jake can read, thoughts he can hear. The perfect woman, perhaps too good to be true.
She is but a projection of the man’s experience of art, film, music—an embodiment of his pretentiousness, the “ideal.” Yes, Jake had found solace in art, and he naturally always hoped to find that same sensation in a person, one he can hopefully share his life with and bring home to his parents. So he creates The Perfect Young Woman, creating the Perfect Family Visit, having his parents repeatedly say what a Perfect Son he is. However, no matter how specific a mold he tries to fit her in, she is still thinking of ending things with him—because, if nothing else, one’s thoughts are the only thing one truly owns, something Jake cannot control or have.
Her conception originated from the desperation for connection brought about by the loneliness of Being, while her rebellion of wanting to “end things” is Reality.
With that, we can say this film, at its very core, is the war between what is real and what isn’t, as we the audience find ourselves constantly contemplating as we watch it. The use of jagged cuts, the warped time, the varying ages and clothing, the claustrophobic aspect ratio, all used to immerse us in a world that doesn’t make sense. But also in a sense that we are forced to ask if we are victims of this over-romanticizing of ourselves (and do we project this ideal unto others as well, so much so that we don’t see who they really are anymore?)
Following Kaufman’s work as the screenwriter for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich and writer and director of Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa, it is in this film that he is able to not only mock such a notion as he does in his earlier work, but this time also pleading forgiveness for it— reality is ugly, let Jake have this one thing; but here, have a random song number to see how ridiculous it is—setting I’m Thinking of Ending Things apart as one of his best.
And while watching this film was excruciating, even borderline scary, so is facing your truth.