There’s Oscar bait and then there’s Oscar bait, if you follow me. Along with the big-budget period dramas following the tried and true formula (which, don’t get me wrong, I often enjoy), there are inevitably some very ambitious, high-concept films transparently hoping for a nod. This week’s film didn’t quite make the Oscars cut, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
While driving with her boyfriend to meet his parents, a young woman notices an increasing number of disturbing discrepancies that cause her to question reality itself.
After only about a month or so of dating, Lucy is troubled by the recurring thought that she should end things with her boyfriend Jake. This leads her down a pretty convoluted, philosophical internal monologue…which is a pretty good recap for this film, honestly.
Despite Lucy’s misgivings, she agrees to take a day trip with Jake to meet his parents, who live on a farm in a very rural setting. Though Lucy is concerned that the heavy snow accompanying their drive will make it difficult to return in time for her to work early the next day, Jake reassures her that he has chains for the tires. As if that automatically makes driving in a blizzard easy to manage, but whatever.
As Lucy and Jake drive in the heavy snow to his parents’ farm, they engage in a series of philosophical discussions. Jake discusses a series of poems by Wordsworth to a young woman named Lucy, who died tragically young. Lucy observes the landscape, finding it somewhat beautiful yet unsettling. Additionally, Jake cautions Lucy that his mother has been unwell lately, so she may not prepare much for dinner that evening.
Lucy and Jake continue to make their way to the family farm, and Lucy learns that Jake is a secret fan of musical theater. He knows the musical Oklahoma! well, which is staged every few years. Confusingly, Lucy begins to recite her own poetry, though she also claims to be an artist and a physicist at different points. She does feel concerned when a billboard pig seems to speak to her, but chalks it up to her currently foggy memory.
Meanwhile, we follow the daily routine of a school custodian, who listens to a Christian radio station, one of the few he can pick up. The custodian cleans the school largely ignored as others go about their lives. He seems to enjoy media as he stops to watch a rehearsal of the school musical and has a generic Robert Zemeckis comedy on during his meal break (I lol’ed at this–apparently Zemeckis gave the okay on this gentle ribbing).
When the couple finally arrives at the farm, Jake offers a tour to Lucy. He tells her a farm horror story about pigs that were being eaten alive by maggots, squashing any dreams I’ve ever had of quitting everything in my current life in favor of starting a goat farm.
Though Jake insists he told his parents that Lucy would be visiting, they seem unprepared for the couple. Lucy notices there are creepy marks on the basement door, which Jake insists are nothing to worry about. And going into the basement? Not advised, but only because it’s unfinished. Not because it’s hiding any uncomfortable, dark secrets, okay? So stop asking about it, GOSH.
The family has a dog, though the dog only appears when Lucy asks about it…and it exhibits some pretty strange behavior. However, before there’s too much time to consider this, Jake’s parents come downstairs to greet their guests at last. Jake’s mom is Toni Collette (lucky duck), who is overly excited to the point of concern. Meanwhile, Jake’s father is very much the rugged farmer stereotype who has no patience for abstract art and is pretty quick to throw around the word “nancy” to describe men who are, IDK, not toxic?
Over a ham dinner (YIKES) that has been carefully prepared from farm to table, Lucy gets to know Jake’s parents. Jake’s mother is especially interested in the story of their meeting at a trivia night, which Lucy relates in a rather convoluted and contradictory manner. Though Jake’s mother has a lot of enthusiasm, she mixes up minor details, including his award for diligence during grade school. Jake snippily corrects her, reflecting bitterly that diligence is for people who work hard but aren’t particularly bright. But we can totally just brush that aside, right?
Lucy changes her story several times, first claiming to study physics, then gerontology, then painting. Despite continuing to insist that she cannot stay for the night, she seems to think it’s inevitable that she and Jake will not drive home that evening. As Jake’s parents suddenly look much older, Lucy finds a nightgown belonging to Jake’s mother that she can sleep in. The only catch is that Lucy must go to the basement to wash the nightgown, which makes Jake noticeably agitated. In the basement, Lucy finds a series of paintings, books, and other items that suggest everything she has created really comes from the basement of Jake’s family home. That can’t be good.
Finally, Lucy and Jake put the snow chains on the car and leave. Their discussion now revolves around film, which seems to be another area of expertise for Lucy. Eventually, they stop for ice cream, though quickly lose their taste for the overly sweet dessert. Needing a place to dispose of the melting ice cream, Jake drives to his former high school, knowing of little else around for miles. And let me tell you: Shit. Gets. Surreal.
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
Whoa, this one is a puzzle. I feel like I’m still trying to wrap my brain around this film. It’s a frustrating viewing experience in a lot of ways, and very much a filmmaker’s film. Sometimes it seems like director Charlie Kaufman just enjoys throwing in all of the references he can–one of which is to an essay collection by David Foster Wallace because OF COURSE it is.
I will give a lot of credit for Toni Collette’s brief but compelling performance here (and I can’t fault any of the performances, actually). What’s more, I appreciate the high concept of the film; I am very much in favor of directors taking risks and embracing nontraditional narratives and techniques. The feeling of dread, disquiet, and strangeness are so powerful here, making for an effective but not particularly enjoyable experience. As a meditation on age, loneliness, memory, and reality, Kaufman sets up a story driven by metaphor rather than plot, which I do admire.
However, there’s a lot here that I just don’t get. The disjointed structure of the film is difficult to piece together, and a great deal of the extended dialogue on philosophical topics is…boring, honestly. I took the minimum number of philosophy credits required for me to graduate college and have never looked back.
On a side note, I would watch this again if it were made into a ballet. Same applies to Oklahoma!, a movie musical I dislike almost as much as Cats (I give Oklahoma! some credit for its iconic 1950s interpretation of American frontier fashions).
I would also accept, overall, more ballets with knife fights.