Long ago, in the mythical, sepia-toned era of hope, liberty, and prosperity that was 2019, I watched a grand total of 38 new films. That was 38 newly-released films from the beginning of January to the end of December, 38 separate contributions to the operating costs of both my local Theatrical Symposium for Degenerate Fancies and reputable Cineplexes in neighboring towns, 38 fresh notches on my cinematic utility belt. As far as the film industry was concerned, it was a pretty packed year, and that’s factoring my intentional avoidance of most mainstream tentpole releases (I’m pickier than the average wannabe film critic and therefore only subject myself to films that appeal to me, so no, I didn’t see f***ing Captain Marvel). Even with nearly forty citations on my annual cinematic rap sheet, I still had a hell of a time populating 2019’s Top Ten, because the vast majority of movies I watch simply don’t resonate with me (really, I should just pen an annual Top Four List for all the films I actually end up remembering by the time I turn over my ‘Seasons of Ryan Reynolds’ wall calendar).
Anyway, the absence of fresh snooty film critiques this year surely requires no justification, unless you’ve been confined indoors since March with no contact with the outside world (wait…). In contrast to 2019’s abundant cinematic cornucopia, this year I consumed a scant six movies – not even enough to satisfy an annual Top Ten, even if I did end up loving each of those Select Six (I didn’t). My god, what a year 2020’s been. All the films I had been eagerly anticipating – such as Dune and Last Night in Soho – have been postponed or placed on indefinite hiatus until the studios can get their corporate poop in a group, and what little was dumped unceremoniously onto various streaming services – such as the live-action Mulan no one asked for and Wonder Woman’s Salute to George Orwell – failed to entice me, because I wasn’t that bored or desperate this year. I haven’t set foot inside a movie theater since March, and the ample amounts of free time I’ve been afforded by history’s most inconvenient pandemic have been devoted to more worthwhile pursuits, such as yoga, navigating withdrawal symptoms, and reading.
Incidentally, I read a personal record-shattering 74 books this year – some of which didn’t even have pictures in them.
At any rate, I knew by roughly July there was no chance I’d be compiling a Top Ten for 2020. Or even a Top Three. Hell, I wouldn’t even be writing a Top One had it not been for I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and that’s only because it scared the living Dickens out of me. This is hands down the most frightening film I’ve ever experienced, not because of startling jump scares or a preponderance of Where’s Waldo-esque background ghosts, but because it forced me to confront the sorry state of my own thought life. Suffice to say, this film effectively kicked open the dilapidated doorway to my shadowy mental basement, and the things that surfaced from the depths of it have haunted me the past four months.
But before I delve into a slightly lengthier exploration of I’m Thinking of Ending Things and what it meant for me, I guess I’ll provide cursory reviews of the other five movies I paid attention to this year – Onward was uninspired (5/10), Palm Springs was a pleasant but all-too-familiar exercise in the tedium of daily repetition (7/10), Uncut Gems was admittedly mesmerizing on a technical level (8/10), The Gentlemen was fine (7/10), and Color Out of Space was good God in Heaven what hell did I just watch (6/10).
Be forewarned – spoilers abound in plenteousness… but if spoilers help you make sense of this surreal string of enigmatic non sequiturs, read on, dear readers. Read on.
Top One Film of 2020:
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a psychological thriller slash existential horror written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, who coincidentally wrote Being John Malkovich. The question of what this film is actually about is destined for registry on the Universe’s Greatest Mysteries list – right between ‘What’s this God character up to?’ and ‘How Does Kanye West Live With Himself?’ – but at first glance, it’s ostensibly about a young woman (Jessie Buckley) accompanying her new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to his rural childhood home to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). From that point (about 42 seconds into the runtime), things get a little weird.
Shortly thereafter (about 47 seconds into the runtime), they get a lot weird.
A considerable portion of the story takes place inside Jake’s car, where he and his girlfriend (whose actual name might be Lucy, Louisa, Lucia, or Ames – it varies from scene to scene) engage in idle chitchat and awkward ‘still-getting-to-know-you-and-haven’t-yet-ruled-out-the-possibility-that-you-might-be-a-serial-killer’ banter. As they travel through the wintry countryside, the woman intermittently muses by way of inner monologue “I’m thinking of ending things” while gazing thoughtfully through the passenger window. These silent reflections are indicative of her mounting internal conflict, discomfort, and indecision, though the nature of what she’s actually thinking of ending isn’t clear yet (is it her relationship with Jake, or her own life?). These prolonged driving scenes are unusually tense considering the couple’s conversations are relatively benign, focused mainly on poetry and critical assessments of said poetry. It’s clear both Jake and the young woman are uncomfortable but nonetheless making a valiant effort to be affable and present, as if they’re both trying to talk themselves into believing this is fun while silently questioning if the other is actually enjoying themselves.
The already palpable sense of unease gradually intensifies until you’re honestly expecting one of them to suddenly pull a gun on the other before the car gets creamed by a dump truck, but instead they just keep cruising along without incident, passing landmarks that look conspicuously familiar (…have I seen that swing set before somewhere, or is it just me?). Interspersed throughout these vehicular dialogue scenes are brief shots of an elderly custodian proceeding with his menial job at a high school – we see him commute to work in a rusted-out pickup, lumber past rows of lockers while teenage girls surreptitiously mock his waddling gait, inexplicably retrieve garbage in the middle of a dance rehearsal, and eat lunch alone in front of a schmaltzy Robert Zemeckis rom-com. The stark incongruity between the vehicle and school sequences only enhances the sensation that something is terribly amiss, despite the fact that nothing technically has unfolded thus far to justify the creeping disquietude.
And we haven’t even been to Tulsey Town yet!
You know how Stanley Kubrick subtly designed his sets to subconsciously unbalance audiences, such as situating the Overlook’s doors and windows in violation of all attempts to establish spatial awareness and implementing wildly contrasting colours that reflect Jack Torrance’s burgeoning murderous inclinations? The idea was that you as a viewer would subconsciously pick up on these architectural oddities and be beset with the nagging suspicion that something isn’t quite right here without really being able to identify why. That’s how this film feels from start to finish – especially once they arrive at Jake’s remote childhood home.
Rolling up to the farmhouse in conjunction with a blizzard, Jake oddly insists on providing a tour of the frigid farmyard, even though his mother is indefatigably waving a greeting from the upstairs window like a .GIF and the temperature has plummeted to roughly 7000 degrees below zero (that’s Celsius, mind). Once inside, they wait an unnaturally long time for the parents to present themselves, during which time Jake pointedly insists there is nothing in the basement that could possibly be of interest to the young woman, so she needn’t concern herself with it (…hang on… why are there two staircases leading upstairs??). As the evening progresses, time begins sliding back and forth at random and the interactions adopt an increasingly dreamlike quality. The young woman’s initial bewilderment over the increasingly erratic behavior of her boyfriend’s family slowly morphs into near-panic once she starts receiving cryptic phone calls, the nature of which remains ever mysterious (…is someone attempting to warn her of something? If so, what?). All this straightforwardness finally culminates in the woman convincing Jake to please take her home already, and though Jake acquiesces, he insists they take a detour to Tulsey Town for a Brr – which is something that, for no explainable reason, just makes my skin crawl.
I’ll reiterate – after leaving a temporally-fluid domestic fever dream and embarking home in the middle of a night during a raging blizzard, Jake insists they stop at the equivalent of Dairy Queen for the equivalent of an Oreo Blizzard, which they are bafflingly able to do because this ice cream parlour is fully staffed with blonde beauties from… (hang on, didn’t I see these girls earlier in the janitor’s high school?!). They purchase their Brrs and proceed to Jake’s old high school on a whim, whereupon an argument compels Jake to flee inside his old educational stomping grounds. Seeking refuge from the cold, the distraught women discovers a dumpster overflowing with Brrs before entering the high school herself. There, she finally comes face to face with the old janitor, who is still washing locker doors and mopping the floor well into the night. She asks the janitor if he’s seen her boyfriend, but can’t remember what he looks like…
A literal dance number ensues in which we see a domestic version of Jake getting butchered by another version of Jake wearing a pair of janitor’s overalls, because symbolism.
Naturally, I had a few casual questions for the film, such as what the baloney f*** is going on here?? Is any of this real? If not, what does it mean? Who are these people and what do they represent? Okay, it’s clear Jake and the old janitor are the same person, but who is this poor woman? Is she dead? A memory? An escaped mental patient? A figment of Jake’s imagination? A facet of his tormented personality? Is Jake’s childhood home some kind of purgatory? What’s hidden in the basement? Dirty laundry? Dead bodies? The dead body of the young woman, perchance? Hmm, it looks like the basement is concealing only custodial uniforms and crappy paintings that look like they were made by a four-year-old, so that establishes another connection between the central narrative and the old janitor… but what does it mean? Does the high school represent Heaven or Hell? Why does time keep shifting back and forth? Are these visions of Jake’s parents real? Does the house represent Jake’s fractured psyche? If so, is the woman haunting him? Why would the woman be haunting his mind? My god, did Jake murder this hapless woman and bury her corpse in the basement, dooming her memory to stalk his guilt-ridden subconscious for all eternity?
What the hell is Tulsey Town and why do I hate it?!
This film is akin to a fully-loaded U-Haul trailer stocked with your Grandma’s heirlooms and tchotchkes, in that it obligates you to unpack a million-and-a-half individual things, most of which you can’t begin to fathom what practical purpose they serve. Desperately seeking answers, I sat down to analyze this film with a team of NASA engineers, and after due consideration, they all agreed this was a waste of their time and resources and returned to organizing the SpaceX launch. So, I then booted up my Internet modem and discovered roughly 17,000 articles, essays, analyses, interpretations, interviews, critiques, videos, and doctoral dissertations that more or less clarified what the hell everything meant.
My initial assumption that Jake murdered this woman and was being haunted by her memory was ultimately unfounded. While the woman does indeed exist inside Jake’s mind, the truth of who she represents is infinitely more… well, pathetic. Turns out, she’s actually an amalgamation of numerous different women Jake had fleeting interactions with throughout his life but ultimately lacked the conviction to establish human connections with. The aged custodian is indeed Jake himself as a lonely, reclusive old man, meaning the entire portion of the film dedicated to his younger self introducing his girlfriend to his parents is nothing more than a meandering fantasy he broods over as he trudges through his daily routine. The girl of his dreams is an idealized, romanticized representation of what he believes the perfect woman to be – or at least, the perfect woman to fit his woefully limited world. In all actuality, she’s a hollow, constantly-shifting composition defined by a hodgepodge of surface-level qualities collected from real women he never actually knew, and their conversations are rooted in his extremely niche literary and pop culture interests.
Despite Jake’s grand romantic ambitions, he never asked that girl he spied across the bar out, never brought her home to his parents, never found the sort of love he’s only ever experienced in cheap Hollywood rom-coms. The reason he takes this woman to Tulsey Town at 3 AM in the dead of winter is because this was the perfect romantic date he always envisioned having in high school, and the dumpster overflowing with discarded Brrs showcases just how many times his troubled mind has recycled this fantasy. His world is narrow, his experiences minimal, his life lonely, and his mind a self-abasing hell. The most laughably unfair part is that even in his private fantasies, Jake still ends up alone. Jeez, and I thought my sexual fantasies were embarrassing…
Later on, she draws me in the nude…
While Jake’s relatively innocuous romantic yearnings could be grounds for extending sympathy to him (he is a lonely old man working a dead-end job, after all), the rest of his imaginary inventions reveal some vastly more toxic aspects of his character. Judging from his interactions with both his fake girlfriend and his parental memories, it’s clear he fancies himself an undiscovered prodigy, a deluded perception that is completely detached from reality. While he waxes on about esoteric poems and famous musicals enough to make you believe he’s cultured, his ‘insights’ and opinions are little more than perfunctory regurgitations of assessments catalogued by actual critics he once read. His knowledge of the real world is minimal and mostly informed by mainstream pop culture, which is kind of like positioning yourself as a political pundit despite your primary source of contemporary news being Reddit. Though Jake actively shunned all opportunities for friendship throughout his life, he still craves recognition for his supposed unrecognized genius despite never contributing anything to the world remotely worth praising. The paintings concealed in his ‘basement’ (which he considers unfulfilled artistic potential) all suck – they’re derivative, uninspired, and altogether half-assed. Even so, he is so convinced of his artistic and intellectual superiority he views himself as the victim of a cruel, uncaring world that has utterly failed to extend him a modicum of the recognition he deserves. The reason he’s a janitor is because everybody has collectively collaborated to crush him, but one day… oh, one day, he’ll show them all how wrong they are. One day they’ll all see. But until that day comes, he’s going to continue mopping up the same high school he graduated from fifty freaking years ago.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a custodian or working at a high school, if that’s the field you’ve found yourself in. As my father once sagely told me, there’s no shame in any career if you find personal satisfaction in it… unless you’re a clown or a stripper or some kind of clown-stripper. However, Jake considers janitorial work beneath him, even though he hasn’t taken any initiative to rise above his station in life. Even so, he dreams of one day being a Nobel Prize winner, as we see in the bizarre final sequence. As Jake’s mind rapidly deteriorates, he pictures himself receiving a Nobel Prize for something that’s not specified in his old high school auditorium, of all places, with his fake girlfriend, dead parents, and all the teenagers he passes day in and day out present to participate in his triumph. If this isn’t sad enough, this entire sequence is lifted directly from A Beautiful Mind (the DVD of which was glimpsed earlier in Jake’s childhood bedroom). The implication is that Jake couldn’t even come up with something original to serve as his ultimate fantasy – he ripped it off a garden-variety Oscar bait movie, presumably because the sight of Russell Crowe receiving adulation for something appealed to him. The award was immaterial – it was the universal admiration Jake craved.
Anyway, as his subconscious peers give him a standing ovation, the real Jake suffers a catastrophic mental breakdown and presumably dies naked in a snowbank, having utterly failed to accomplish anything with his sad, pathetic existence.
So! What have we learned from this inspiring narrative? Me personally, I learned not to watch films this cerebral while Facebook creeping on girls I should have asked out in high school but didn’t (…kidding, I say with a nervous tremor in my voice and a casual wipe of my perspiring brow). The true horror of I’m Thinking of Ending Things resides in just how appallingly relatable Jake’s mental state is. Theatrical as his fate was, the thought patterns that led him to that fate like a maggot-infested pig to the slaughter are not exclusive to him. They’re not the telltale signs of a uniquely-deranged, sociopathic mind – truth be told, they’re actually pretty common. To some extent or another, we’re all like Jake, or we have the potential to be if we’re not careful. For all his inability to forge ahead in life, Jake sees himself as a victim, an unsung genius who could have taken the world by storm and been somebody, if only his lousy parents, those stupid popular girls at school, the world, hadn’t kept him down. The problem is, Jake never even tried to do anything with his life – he spent it inside his high school because that was easier than stepping beyond it and risking failure. The irony is that in failing to even try, he became the epitome of a failure by default. Though he dreamed (albeit unrealistically) big, he ultimately settled for the bottom rung on the societal ladder, resigning himself to plodding along at his menial job, day in and day out, obsessing over girls he didn’t have the guts to approach and accolades that were beyond his reach while his mind and body slowly wasted away. Jake wasn’t repressed by a cruel, uncaring world, he allowed his own fear, resentment, self-loathing, envy, misanthropy, entitlement, and delusions to cripple him from the start. At the end of his life, he had no one to blame but himself – which is probably why he went nuts.
Really, I see a lot of myself in Jake, and that terrifies me.
True Confessions of a Personal Nature:
I’m going to be real with you here… I was a lonely kid growing up, one who generally coped with his troubled upbringing by devoting an alarming amount of time and energy to daydreaming about Awesome Things That Will One Day Happen Once I Get the Hell Outta This Stupid Town. Most of these fantasies invariably took inspiration from whatever movies and TV shows I happened to be immersed in at the time, but the overwhelming majority of them were focused more on Proving a Point to People Who Had Been Mean to Me Once than they were on becoming truly happy. I was less concerned with moving ahead with my life than I was with proving to that girl, to those bullies, to that ignorant teacher that I had moved ahead with my life, which in retrospect led to some glaring emotional problems as I entered adulthood (newsflash – your thought patterns don’t automatically become healthier the moment you leave a toxic environment, you carry that shit with you).
This year I turned 30, a milestone that prompted a great deal of introspection and self-examination, especially in light of how I spent my 20s. In some respects, things didn’t quite work out the way I wanted them to – but in many other respects, things actually worked out better than I had anticipated, which is positively mystifying considering how much money I’ve spent on booze over the years. Not that this stops me from brooding endlessly over the Things That Didn’t Work Out (seriously, I could rival Batman in the Grim Brooding Olympics). However, when I take a good, long, honest look at my life, I’m forced to conclude I have it pretty damn good. Sure, I currently live in my hometown, but that’s by choice because a career opportunity opened up here (I don’t still live in my hometown, dammit, I live in my hometown once again). Furthermore, I’m blessed with a fairly wide social circle, I enjoy some extremely rewarding hobbies, and as of 2021, I’m going to see my debut book published (get ready for a shameless plug at the bottom of the article). All things considered, I’ve lived a pretty damn good life. I have a rewarding career, paid writing opportunities, and occasionally I even date beautiful women.
Tell me then, why am I still nursing that wound of rejection administered by that girl who wasn’t interested in me ten years ago? Why is it so important to me that everybody acknowledge my accomplishments, even, inexplicably, people I don’t even like? Why do I devote so much of my mental energy to concocting fantasies where I actually did tell that asshole off, or where I got the respect I ‘deserved’ in that situation, or where I showed those people how wrong they were to exclude me because now I’m an accomplished and influential member of society so pbthbthbthbthbthb, or where I win the heart of that pretty girl, who is typically some female Frankenstein’s Monster mashup constructed from whatever actresses I happen to be most attracted to at the current moment? Why do I find it so difficult to live in the moment, work towards realistic goals, accept responsibility for my own existence, and form meaningful connections with people that aren’t centered entirely on me??
Who knows (but feel free to let me know in the comments section!). Maybe it’s the sad state of the human condition. Maybe it’s the natural thought patterns beset by melancholy personalities. Maybe it’s my upbringing. Maybe it’s trauma. Maybe it’s narcissism. Maybe it’s the Fentanyl. And maybe it’s the choices I made, consciously or unconsciously, to dwell on key Unfair Things That Happened instead of choosing to rise above them and move on with my damn life.
Whatever the case, recognizing the sheer, self-defeating toxicity of Jake’s obsessive thought life gave me pause – a pause that’s lasted for several months now and has prompted a dynamic shift in the Things I Choose to Dwell On. Thankfully, I’m not a geriatric janitor who cleans the same high school he graduated from, but if I’m not careful, my propensity for negative thoughts could still result in me becoming a lonely, bitter, old man wracked with regret over Things Never Pursued, especially once I realize that, shocker, it’s not actually Everyone Else’s fault I never pursued them. No matter what kind of hand we’ve been dealt by Fate, we’re all responsible for our own lives, which is simultaneously the truest and most unfair part of living on this planet. If we never shoot for our dream jobs, we’re never going to get them. If we never approach that person we’re attracted to and strike up a conversation, they’re likely never going to know we exist. And if we decide not to do those things because of fear / laziness / uncertainty / what-have-you, we have no one to blame but ourselves. This is what makes I’m Thinking of Ending Things so fundamentally terrifying, because none of us are above Jake’s fate.
Now, maybe you’re reading this and you’re thinking, “God, this guy’s a pathetic idiot,” or maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, this guy’s as pathetically idiotic as me!” or maybe you’re one of those weirdos who actually comes to this site for the film critiques and you’re chapped I prattled on about my myself for eight pages. Well, dear reader, a great film should teach you something about yourself or the world you didn’t know before, so consider yourself educated.
So, my banal, super-generic, Instagram-worthy, sparkle-filtered piece of advice going into 2021 is this – don’t be like Jake. Stop brooding and start doing. Take a risk. Avoid ruing your life choices (or lack of choices). Don’t blame others for what happened in the past – learn from what happened and be better equipped for the future. Stop dreaming about something better and start going about making it happen, no matter what it is. Otherwise, all you’ll end up having are your dreams of better things never achieved.
Actually, though… what kind of institution doesn’t supply an industrial sweeper?
In conclusion, ITOET is the only film I truly liked this year, and not just because it triggered a comprehensive self-audit. The cast is superb, the cinematography has enough personality to practically qualify as another character, and there are enough humorous touches and chilling pieces of imagery to make the fever dream of a plot worth the price of admission (such as the laughably garbage Robert Zemeckis comedy and the entire Tulsey Town sequence). It’s not exactly a feel good film, but hopefully the things it has to say will enable you to take stock of yourself and start feeling good in the future.
So head over to Tulsey Town for a Brr and here’s to 2021.
Shameless plug alert! If you’ve enjoyed my writing over the past few years, why not check out my sci-fi short stories? They can be found within the pages of Pulp Kings Magazine, here, here, here, and here. Also, my debut book, “Love and Reclamation,” a science-fiction space adventure about the perils of love, is hitting select shelves sometime in 2021 and is available only through Stray Books.