“This whole romantic love thing — it’s just a projection anyway, right?”
Delivered with a smirk and a shrug from an insouciant Catherine Keener, the query comes as her character ditches husband Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for a boho life in Berlin. Playing Adele Lack in Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 Synecdoche, New York, the writer and director’s choice femme fatale makes a game of misandrist cruelty, no less than she did as Maxine in Being John Malkovich, the screenwriter’s 1999 debut with director Spike Jonze. Fast forward 20 years and I’m Thinking of Ending Things revisits Kaufman’s fixation with hopeless hetero romance — only this time the female, a young woman who usually goes by Lucy, is the neurotic narrative lead.
“I should end this,” Lucy (Jessie Buckley) resolves by internal voiceover throughout the film, the “this” being her relationship with newish boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). Based on the novel by Iain Reid, Ending Things is set against the backdrop of a winter road trip to Jake’s parents’ farm. In Kaufman’s version the windshield encloses the couple within the frame’s cramped Academy ratio; they, and we, are trapped for the long haul. Snug in the passenger seat (and sans a seatbelt), Lucy occasionally backpedals on her earlier plans to dump her bookish beau. “We have a real connection … I’ve never experienced anything like it,” she muses to herself, the wipers beating in the foreground like the hands of a frantic clock. For a full 20 minutes the pair converse about Wordsworth, aphids, Mussolini’s trains. So far, so Kaufman.
With its eschatological and temporal preoccupations, I’m Thinking of Ending Things (his first live-action feature since Synecdoche) is of a piece with much of Kaufman’s kooky, if doleful, oeuvre. While some critics doggedly (and perhaps fruitlessly) pursue the singular “meaning” of the movie, others have taken it as yet another instance of the director flattening female subjects in the interest of male characters. As feminist writer Sady Doyle put it, “a [Kaufman] woman is unknowable, perhaps even to herself … less a person than she is a puzzle box.” A. O. Scott also expressed reservations about how the filmmaker’s “men … have a habit of confusing the objects of their fantasies with the real women in front of them.” From Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) to the stop-motion Anomalisa (2015), Kaufman’s female characters can indeed seem canvases onto which the lead man’s doubts and desires are projected and negotiated.
But what about when these women actively resist? From Eternal Sunshine’s Clementine (Kate Winslet), who laments, “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them … [b]ut I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind” to Ending Things’s Lucy, whose inner turmoil over Jake anchors most of the film, Kaufman’s female characters can be keenly self-aware of the ways in which their selfhood is steadily eroded. If anything, his latest venture probes this tension more than any of his previous works. If Lucy is merely a projection of Jake, she is at the very least considering how to break free.
In the course of meeting Jake’s mother and father — a cartoonish take on “American Gothic” from Toni Colette and David Thewlis — what exactly Lucy seeks to “end” is riotously upended. Her striped sweater fades from orange to beige; her once-bare neck dons a dated pearl choker. Between bowls of carrots and corn on the cob at their awkward family dinner, Lucy receives a series of alerts that seem to come from her own troubled psyche — her iPhone lists missed calls from both “Lucy” and “Louisa.” As she descends the farmhouse stairs a few moments later, she reflects on how fully the romance has gone awry. “I don’t even know who I am in this whole thing anymore, where I stop and Jake starts,” she mulls as she walks down the steps six successive times across one continuous shot. “Jake needs to see me as someone who sees him. He needs to be seen, and he needs to be seen with approval, like that’s my purpose in all this, in life. To approve of Jake, to keep him going.”
As though offering a running meta-commentary on the fractured identity of so many Kaufman heroines, Lucy’s profession shifts wildly during the film. Whether a painter, a waitress, or a gerontologist (at some point she is all these, and more) she is doing her job so long as she fluffs up Jake’s limp self. And yet the entire time she overtly expresses the will to escape, to get back home and get back “to work.” Buckley’s frequent side eye and furrowed brow lend cohesion to a character splitting at the seams.
Heading back to the city through the snowy night, Lucy abruptly channels the voice of film critic Pauline Kael. “Nothing she does is memorable because she does so much,” she says of Gena Rowlands in Women Under the Influence. The opposite could be said of Buckley’s ability to master such a wide variety of personae in the last half of the film, throughout which she consistently empathizes with those who are clearly suffering: frozen lambs at the farm, Jake’s dementia-saddled father, or a bullied salesgirl at what seems to be a mid-century late-night ice cream stand.
“Nothing is more rare in any man than an act of his own,” Lucy recites from Emerson midway through the film, concluding, “and it’s quite true ….” For Kaufman the line resonates in a different way for men than for women; his women don’t enjoy the luxury of fretting over a lack of autonomous personhood, whereas his men do little but.
“It’s saddening to come to a great man’s work, full of admiration, and conclude he could only ever see you as a quirky mistress or an emasculating shrew,” writes Doyle, but I suppose I’m not so cynical. Kaufman seems well aware that his sad-sacked subjects drain their female companions. Ending Things grants its heroine both interiority and volubility; Lucy is less a cipher than a conduit for the indignation that women across time and generations have experienced. “I’ve given you 40 reasons why I need to get back tonight,” Lucy shouts into the wind toward the end of the film, after Jake abandons her outside his massive high school. “It’s hard to say no. I wasn’t taught that. It’s easier to say yes.” It’s no accident that Jake is easily the least likable of Kaufman’s protagonists, and to interpret Lucy as simply a figment of his mind is to impose a coherent narrative onto a film that adamantly resists one.
“Everyone’s everyone,” says Dianne Wiest to Caden in Synecdoche, New York. “So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness … it’s yours. It is time for you to understand this.” If Synecdoche suggests that gender is irrelevant in the construction and performance of identity, Ending Things insists on its enduring reach; men leech off women for validation, while women — Lucy as a foil for the female condition — attempt to escape their parasitic grip.