Guy Boyd (right) in I Think of the End of Things (Photo by Mary Cybulski / Copyright Netflix)
Based on Iain Reid's 2016 novel, Charlie Kaufman's I Think of the End of Things returns to familiar subjects – solipsistic men and idealized girlfriends, already subjective memory deterioration, aging and death, ambitious futility. From Kaufman's book, the text from page one (an inner monologue by the nameless narrator), some dialogues from the following first chapter and the course of events up to about page 150 (of 210) retain. Otherwise, the dialogue before a final act of Kaufman's own conception is almost completely mixed up. Both are excellent substitutions: the novel has an obviously overwhelming twist ending and isn't exactly full of scintillating exchanges along the way. Both the book and the movie begin with the narrator (Jessie Buckley, whose on-screen character is referenced by multiple names) and new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) on a long drive to his parents' dinner from Hell. On the side, the narrator's shallow inner daydreaming (a mix of childhood memories, fears that this relationship will not last, etc.) is interrupted by conversations Reid likes to refer to as “essentially a philosophical dialogue”: “Maybe we shouldn't know all the answers. Questions are good. They are better than answers. If you are interested in learning more about life, the way we work, and our progress, questions are important. This is what drives and stretches our intellect. I think questions make us less lonely and more connected. It's not always about knowing. I don't appreciate knowing Not knowing is human. “In my opinion this is not a philosophical dialogue. I'm not sure it's a TED talk at all. (Spoilers follow)
Instead of what was withdrawn, Kaufman first adds an actual personality for his female lead. The novel's rendering of her insides is basically an expanded AITA anecdote plus traumatic flashbacks, a series of fears and memories that never completely separate from Jake. Arguably there are structural reasons to justify this POV: The woman and Jake end up being exposed as one and the same – a lone janitor's projections of the couple that could have been if he had been brave enough to get into a girl a bar to be approached decades ago – so the characters have no external, decoupled life. That said, it doesn't get over the boredom of reading two not-too-interesting people exploring the freshman philosophy. If Kaufman's leads aren't real, it doesn't mean they have to be boring. This incarnation of the duo has real interests to talk about, and they definitely got the reading – quite a bit of them. While the book keeps the two characters consistent through to the finale, here the woman's name, career path, and identity change all the time: it takes a while for Buckley's many iterations to be understood. Her hair, wardrobe, and personality are literally shifting as the car drifts into increasing darkness. Poetry, quantum physics, gerontology and film criticism are some of her specialties, with the latter being particularly relevant: Since the dialogue for the COVID replay is perfectly on schedule, there is an excursus on how even (perhaps particularly) bad films are called "viruses", serve as a "virus". social disease ”that infects all of our brains.
The language of both characters alternates between Kaufman originals and the extensive appropriation of other texts – sometimes recognized as belonging to others, sometimes not, all articulated by the dyad with the same intensity as their "original thoughts", thereby creating the boundary between these and those that they formed. At the beginning the dialogue contains echoes of things that we have just heard or will later hear in different contexts by two characters whose POV cannot rationally explain what they are saying. However, the exchange does not confuse any of them and is not classified as annoying: it is clear fairly early on that we are trapped in a distinct awareness. The main question is whose and how many people are represented by it. In a thorough breakdown of the differences between film and novel, Matthew Dessem argues, “Some films have puzzles that are better left unsolved, but I think ending things is not one of them: there is a fairly simple narrative explanation of why things will so funny and it's phrased more explicitly in the book than in the movie. "I agree and disagree with Reid's assessment of how" impossible "it would be to film his book the way it was written: a little voice-over for the big reveal (a seemingly unrelated caretaker is the couple) , maybe having some flashbacks previously seen from different angles would do the job.
Kaufman basically provides all of the information you need to unpack the ending, but very quickly, and I'm not particularly good at solving narrative puzzles. Would the movie work better for someone who has never read the book (because working through it yourself would be a totally unexpected experience), or is it easier to admire when you already know the ending? I have to go for the latter for a couple of reasons. Once the book reveals its twist, there is no other place but to sum it all up, and the path to Reid's choice of ending is padded with a generic serial killer-slasher climax. The protagonist, who is hiding in a school, is afraid of killing someone. Kaufman's full-sheet finale sees the POV reveal as a starting point for reprocessing everything we've seen on an emotional level to reach a new place of acceptance without changing the plot. With that in mind, it's helpful to have read the book and not wonder what is going on, which is pretty clear now – an awareness projecting into a hypothetical couple retells that narrative and eventually accepts that the relationship is never happened while preparing to die – and just marvel at its conceptual audacity.
The caretaker's beginning awareness is conveyed through cultural texts (annotated in the credits, which Kaufman would rather read), which are called up with increasing frequency until the original dialogue in the final scenes has been completely cut out. In other words, we are what we see, which isn't a super new thesis (and it's not surprising that High Fidelity and Charlie Kaufman could end up in such close thematic proximity to each other – I also thought of Vanilla Sky, another Text about the construction of a personal identity from personal favorites). However, it is fascinating how Kaufman realizes this. His choices for attempted catharsis are far more interesting, cheerful and esoteric than Reid's brown acid melt, and offer the same moment of acceptance through three different artistic formats that serve as stages of grief and liberation: a dance from Oklahoma! in which the caretaker symbolically kills his dream girl scenario; a replica of Russell Crowe's final monologue from A Beautiful Mind, repurposed to give a final goodbye to this unreal love; and a song from Oklahoma! Bitterly accept loneliness. This is all very strange, a series of conceptual set pieces that go on for a long time, but are not unprecedented in Kaufman's work: That this grave march to mortality ceases to travestate Ron Howard in detail is an integral part of the extreme specific industry jokes in adaptation. Sincerity stands cheek to cheek with petty industry in spite of it, and it is more than likely that impending death will not bring our higher minds to light. Our extremely porous consciousness is constantly breaking the experience through cultural objects whose unconscious ramifications put art on the same level as both meaningful (A Woman Under the Influence) and ridiculous (A Beautiful Mind) – we cannot choose which sticks. As someone who often worries that the last words that go through my brain are, "What do you want on your tombstone?", "Pepperoni … and cheese", it's not hard to tell.
An apparent guiding spirit is not explicitly discussed or formulated in any other way on the screen (and as far as I know, I suspect it is wrong): the last moments of 2001 when Dave Bowman transitions from one elaborately made up manifestation of the elderly into another. This is reminiscent of dinner with their parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis age in senility and dementia, then back to youth, in a house that rises above low-angle perspectives) and the finale of Beautiful Mind, the Both of the flashy actors are dominated by artificial aging make-up and the equally stylized body language of decay. In this light, the extremely long driving / talking scenes (three in total), which the couple drives in the course of the night in increasing darkness, scan as a much darker and more extensive journey through another stargate: not in the direction of enlightenment, but inevitably what may is not the same.
I'm thinking of Ending Things is currently running on Netflix.