I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Directed by Charlie Kaufman ◆ Written by Charlie Kaufman (screenplay) and Iain Reid (book) ◆ Produced by Likely Story and Projective Testing Service ◆ Distributed by Netflix
The Ipcress File (1965)
Directed by Sidney J. Furie ◆ Written by W.H. Canaway and James Doran (screenplay), and Len Deighton (book) ◆ Produced by Lowndes Productions ◆ Distributed by Universal Pictures
Watching Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things,reminded me of Evelyn Waugh’s remark that you could watch author James Joyce going mad sentence by sentence by reading Ulysses. Watching Ending Things, you might not see Kaufman going mad, but you will see him falling, scene by scene, into an abyss of dispiriting and generally unamusing nonsense.
Of course, Kaufman is famous for his surrealistic films in which the ordinary canons of narrative are ignored, the better to construct bizarre tales in which characters wander aimlessly through halls of absurdity. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey is relieved of his painful memories by having parts of his brain surgically removed. In Being John Malkovich, Manhattan office workers discover a portal behind some filing cabinets. Once entered, the portal spirits them away into Malkovich’s mind. After surveilling the world from Malkovich’s perspective for 15 minutes, they’re unceremoniously dumped on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike just outside the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. How’s that for an allegory of the travails of maintaining one’s identity in an age of celebrity worship?
No question, the premises of these earlier films are outlandish. They are also hilariously entertaining. The premise of Ending Things is equally bizarre, but unfortunately its unfolding is dull.
A young woman variously referred to as Lucy, Lucia, and Louisa, seemingly in honor of William Wordsworth’s “Lucy Poems,” has accepted her boyfriend Jake’s invitation to visit his parents’ farmhouse in Oklahoma. At first she’s excited to accompany him because he’s so attractive and intelligent. A few seconds later, she reverses herself. Her feelings for Jake are tainted with misgivings that make her wonder why she agreed to go on this journey in the first place. After all, by visiting his parents, isn’t she acknowledging her wish to have an enduring relationship with a young man whom she, as of yet, barely knows?
Reflecting on her previous dates, she now recognizes they were also fraught with similar doubts. Realizing this, she becomes angrier and angrier, all the while disguising her feelings behind a strained girlish smile. Is she a frustrated feminist? Her contradictory thoughts provoke tension both in herself and in the audience, who can’t help wondering where this is leading. This may be Kaufman’s strategy.
After driving through a bleak Oklahoma landscape, they arrive at Jake’s farm for dinner, during which his parents are alternately cheerful and depressed. Even more strangely, their ages continually change. They’re active and middle-aged in one scene, then doddering and elderly in the next, only to change back again several times. We’re left wondering if this is happening in Lucia’s mind or in the slippery reality of the story.
The young woman repeatedly alludes to a scholarly psychology paper she must finish the next day. To do so, she must return home before the evening is over. She and Jake quickly take their leave after dinner, despite the formidable blizzard that has settled in. And that’s it for the plot; all that remains are the head-scratching oddities. Lucia mysteriously finds one of her own paintings in Jake’s basement. During an afternoon drive with Jake she recites another woman’s poem, letting Jake assume she had written it herself, and then finds a copy of the original author’s work in his bedroom. Jake’s mother strangely forbids her to go into the basement, then later insists the girl go down there to empty the washing machine.
Mysteries and illogical details surface throughout the film, but I’m going to stop here. To say more would be to risk undermining the film’s effect. While I’m not at all convinced its obscure corners are worth exploring, I nevertheless think treading upon them would be unfair.
The actors are all excellent. David Thewlis and Toni Collette are both superlative as the mercurial parents transitioning back and forth between relative youth and decrepit old age. As the leads, Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons are so at home in their surreal roles that they make the film’s various fantasies seem a matter of course. When Lucia and Jake turn down his parents’ invitation to stay overnight rather than brave the now brutal subzero storm outside, their bland expressions make it seem merely par for the course. So too is their decision to stop to order ice cream floats at a roadside stand that has unaccountably stayed open despite the wintry weather. The deliberate flatness of the actors’ performances builds a stage on which the film’s various lunatic moments come rushing at us with uncanny power.
What does it all signify? I could speculate, but I strongly suspect that whatever guesses I’d make about the film’s intentions would be either too obvious to help make sense of it or entirely wide of Kaufman’s aim—assuming he had a definite target in the first place. Despite its peculiarities, and putting aside whatever it brings in at the box office and through streaming services, this film simply fails to entertain over the course of its two hour and 20 minute run time.
To turn to something more comprehensible, I revisited 1965’s The Ipcress File. Paradoxically, this espionage film, in which obfuscation is central to the plot, is remarkably clearer about its purposes than Ending Things. At the time of its release, it was presented as a new kind of espionage film, one touted as a response to Ian Fleming’s fanciful James Bond extravaganzas. Ipcress is based on Len Deighton’s novel of the same title. It features a nameless spy, played by Michael Caine, who wears tortoise rimmed glasses and speaks with a cockney accent.
Deighton came from the lower middle class and, at age 91, still has an edge about him honed by competing for jobs with Oxbridge boys. His first novel, published in 1962, drew on his experiences working in military intelligence during World War II, and his irritation at having had to work with his supposed social betters. Accordingly, the novel is an unsubtle protest against Britain’s class system. Here, the writer and the film star chosen to play his protagonist were a perfect fit.
Caine’s character was given the name Harry Palmer by the filmmakers in deference to the movie audience. This is too bad. Deighton deliberately left his protagonist unnamed to emphasize how the man’s profession deprived him of his identity. He’s a cipher whose anonymity enables him to get dirty jobs done. In Deighton’s novels, the jobs are dirty indeed, including killing innocents and even one’s own colleagues. The film, of course, downplays this aspect of the novel. It’s there, but not so emphatically as to upset ordinary filmgoers who want a hero they can root for unreservedly.
Still, the film retains Deighton’s simmering bitterness at Britain’s class structure. Caine expresses this perfectly, delivering his lines with a patented sneer at the foibles of his superiors, especially his immediate bosses, Colonel Ross and Major Dalby, played by Guy Doleman and Nigel Green with an unbending hauteur that is as at once frostily formidable and shatteringly comic.
The film has its MacGuffin in a piece of audio tape labeled “Ipcress File” Palmer discovers in a seemingly abandoned garage. He is tasked with discovering what it means, and his investigation embroils him in a tangled plot leading to several formidable roadblocks. Such are the conventions of espionage thrillers. What distinguishes the film from others in its genre are director Sidney Furie’s compositions and editing, which are designed to show the audience what is hidden from Palmer.
We first encounter Palmer in a blurred point-of-view shot as he awakens and surveys his apartment, which he cannot see clearly until he puts his glasses on. From this moment on, Furie shoots scenes arranged more to occlude than to reveal. While Palmer talks to an untrustworthy superior, the latter almost closes an office door until we’re left with only a sliver of the film’s widescreen format through which to watch the encounter. The shot visually underscores that Palmer will only see a partial account of the mystery that is about to confront him.
Furie shot other scenes through and around obstacles in the foreground, relegating essential action to the background. We watch through panes of a telephone booth across the street as Palmer fights a suspect. The film relentlessly employs sharply angled scenes so that everything seems about to slide off the screen. The effect suggests this world of espionage has lost its balance so severely that its characters cannot keep their footing.
While the film departs from the novel wildly at times, Furie’s visual choices perfectly render Deighton’s theme of generalized paranoia. Palmer must eventually confront his two superiors, though he’s unable to decide which is a patriot and which is a traitor. It’s a plot turn that illustrates the predicament of the little guy in a world in which official duplicity reigns. The reassurance provided by the happily ending Bond films has vacated the scene.
above: David Thewlis, Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, and Toni Collette in I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)