Every year during December, I find time to rewatch my favourite winter film: I’m Thinking of Ending Things. This film by Charlie Kaufman is one that defies easy categorization. It's not just a psychological thriller or a drama; it's a complex exploration of existential dread, identity, as well as the fluidity and blending in and out of time and reality.
From the very surface and in a sentence, it is about a woman named Lucy and her inner monologue while her boyfriend Jake drives her to meet his family for the first time, and whilst she is in his childhood home. All of this occurs on a very snowy day, which continues to (ironically) snowball into a blizzard as Lucy’s thoughts get more intense and pick up speed.
Narrative Structure: A Mind-Bending Journey
One of the most striking aspects of the film is its non-linear and disjointed narrative structure. Kaufman employs a fractured timeline that jumps between different moments in the characters' lives. This narrative fragmentation serves as a reflection of the protagonist's internal turmoil and her struggle to make sense of her own existence. It also challenges the viewer to actively engage with the film, piecing together the puzzle of Lucy's identity and her relationship with Jake.
The narrative structure of the film creates a sense of disorientation and unease, mirroring the protagonist's own feelings of existential dread. The refusal to adhere to a linear plot invites viewers to question the nature of reality and the passage of time, setting the stage for a deeper exploration of existential themes. Central to the film's exploration of existential dread, is the character of Lucy. As the story unfolds, Lucy's identity undergoes a series of transformations, calling into question the stability of the self. She is a character defined by her uncertainty and introspection, a reflection of the film's overarching tropes.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is replete with themes of isolation and alienation. The characters often find themselves in desolate landscapes, both physical and metaphorical, emphasizing the isolation of the human condition. Jake's childhood home, where much of the film's action takes place, becomes a symbol of this isolation. The house is filled with memories, but it is also a place of emptiness and decay. His parents go through various stages of aging within one evening, ending in decay as well. It serves as a backdrop for the characters' attempts to connect with each other and grapple with their own mortality.
At its core the film wrestles with the existential dread that arises from the awareness of our own mortality and the apparent meaninglessness of existence. This dread is encapsulated in the recurring character of a high school janitor, who represents the inevitability of death and the futility of human endeavours.
The Element of Snow
My favourite part of this movie, is its ability to have you feeling cold throughout, as if it is you yourself who is stuck in a blizzard, watching dreams and reality constantly attach and detach. Snow, often associated with winter, carries connotations of isolation and coldness. In the film, the characters frequently find themselves in snowy landscapes, particularly during the road trip to Jake's parents' house. The vast, white expanses of snow mirror the emotional distance and isolation between the characters, particularly the protagonist and Jake.
The snow-covered surroundings accentuate the eerie and desolate atmosphere of the film. The muted colours and barren landscapes contribute to a sense of detachment, emphasizing the characters' struggle to connect with each other. As the characters navigate the snowy terrain, viewers are reminded of the challenges of forging genuine human connections in a world marked by emotional frigidity.
It is also used as a transient element, subject to change and impermanence. This transience is reflected in the film's narrative structure, which is characterized by non-linear storytelling and temporal shifts. Scenes and locations transform seamlessly, blurring the boundaries between past, present, and future.
The impermanence of snow serves as a metaphor for the impermanence of human existence. The characters struggle with the passage of time and the fleeting nature of their lives. The film's title, ‘I'm Thinking of Ending Things’, alludes to the characters' contemplation of mortality and the fragility of existence. Though it starts with a mere contemplation of perhaps wanting to end the relationship, soon the line “I’m thinking of ending things…” opens up to so much more. Snow becomes a visual representation of the ever-advancing march of time, a reminder that life is as ephemeral as the falling snowflakes.
The film's protagonist, Lucy, engages in profound internal monologues throughout the narrative. Her contemplations on existence, the self, and the nature of consciousness echo the philosophical inquiries of existentialist thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Against the backdrop of snow, Lucy's existential dread is palpable, underscoring the isolation that often accompanies profound philosophical reflection. The film is a cinematic tour de force that delves deep into the realms of existentialism, identity, and the human condition.
Charlie Kaufman's non-linear narrative structure, coupled with Jessie Buckley's exceptional performance as Lucy, creates a thought-provoking and disorienting experience for the viewer. It’s thematic richness, drawing from existential philosophy and the concept of the absurd, invites viewers to confront the inherent uncertainties and existential dilemmas of life. It challenges conventional storytelling and embraces ambiguity as a means of exploring the complexities of human existence.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is not a film that provides easy answers; rather, it prompts viewers to engage in introspection and philosophical contemplation. It serves as a masterful example of cinema's capacity to delve into the depths of existentialism, leaving its audience with lingering questions and a profound sense of existential unease. In the end, the film's exploration of existential dread leaves an indelible mark on the viewer, inviting us to attempt to dance with the incomprehensible nature of our own existence.
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