Charlie Kaufman’s latest film is also his bleakest and most minimal, focusing on a couple over one interminable night in the depths of winter. The man is Jake, played by Jesse Plemons, and the woman is never given a single name, although she is referred to most regularly as Lucy, and played by Jessie Buckley. In the first act of the film, we follow Jake and Lucy as they drive through an Oklahoma blizzard to the home of his parents, who are simply referred to as mother, played by Toni Colette, and father, played by David Thewlis. The second act takes us through an increasingly surreal dinner party, as Jake’s family morph in and out of different stages in their lives, while the third act gets back on the road again. Jake and Lucy now head home but are waylaid by an ice cream stand, and then by a surreal climax at Jake’s high school.
Kaufman’s films have always had a depressive current, but before Anomalisa that was tempered by his sense of humour and his anarchic energy, which propelled his protagonists through even the deepest mires. All that energy has vanished from Ending Things, which exudes heaviness, sinking us into a depressive lethargy in which every word, action and development expends an unbearable amount of effort. All of the characters feel trapped in their own thoughts, and appear to be overhearing their own thoughts, producing a dissociative experience, a cinematic fugure state, that grows more alienating as it proceeds.
Kaufman pairs that with an interminable sense of finitude – an endless sense of the end always approaching – making Ending Things feel as if it is indeed ending from the very beginning. Jake seems to have arrived at an end point of clinical depression, Lucy is planning to break up with him when they return to the city, and his parents seem on the very cusp of death, due to a series of time-bending sequences that accelerate their decay and decrepitude. No surprise, then, that the characters lose all sense of time, instead living in a kind of normalized crisis-time, in which the worst possible outcome is always on the verge of happening. In fact, it’s hard to even call them characters in the conventional sense, since they’re continually glitching, stuttering and resetting, much as Kaufman’s script is driven by odd beats, pauses and recursions that mitigate against any real sense of forward movement.
In an older kind of film, this might have ended by taking us to some space that was radically outside the world of the script – we might find out that the entire mise-en-scene was a simulation put on for someone else’s benefit, or that the events were all occurring within a single character’s mind. Here, however, there is no hope of an “outside” to return to, both literally and figuratively. At a literal level, virtually all the exterior scenes are so shrouded in snow that we get no sense of the passing landscape. While Lucy paints landscapes, and shows Jake’s parents some of her work, she also insists that what she is really painting is “interiority,” and that these landscapes are all inside her head, rather than offering us any genuine outside.
This lack of a proper outside makes Ending Things feel very attuned to the pandemic – and to the experience of watching film and television during the pandemic. Whether Kaufman put the final touches to the film post-pandemic, or whether he was outlining a social malaise that has been consummated by the pandemic, all of these characters seem as if they have lived in lockdown for way to long. Interaction with other people – the sheer presence of other people – has been totally defamiliarized, as all the characters struggle to negotiate the metre and a half radius that separates them from everyone else’s personal space. While the film isn’t about viruses per se, they’re a regular point of reference – Lucy notes that “everything wants to live – viruses are just another example of everything.” Similarly, Jake is studying gerontology, part of the film’s fascination with our “almost repulsed relation with the aged” that has become so prominent in the wake of the pandemic, especially in the United States.
Within that bleak post-pandemic, or peri-pandemic viewing landscape, there are only two real sources of warmth in Kaufman’s vision. Both of them involve spectacle, and both of them revolve around Jake’s high school. Although Jake and Lucy only arrive at his high school in the closing scenes, Kaufman intercuts the opening scenes with sequences involving an unnamed janitor, played by Guy Boyd, doing his rounds in the corridors and classrooms. While taking a break, this janitor watches a film-within-the-film that is unnamed, but comically attributed to Robert Zemeckis. It’s about a young woman who is unemployed, and doesn’t ever achieve her dream of becoming an animal rights advocate, but is fulfilled when she finally falls in love.
There’s a longing, here, for the golden era of feel-good cinema – for a time when movies could produce a convincing feel-good atmosphere. In a pandemic context, that’s tantamount to a nostalgia for cinema itself, especially in the United States, where movies will be closed for at least the next eighteen months. Kaufman adds to this nostalgic warmth with another high school spectacle – a production of Oklahoma! that is in rehearsal while the janitor is doing his rounds. This is the warm kernel of the film, shot in comforting orange and yellow hues, and staged against a bucolic landscape that’s light years from the bleak and anonymous Oklahoma that Jake and Lucy drive through to arrive at his parents’ windswept and austere farm house.
Kaufman’s longing for Oklahoma!, by way of the classic feel-good film, is part of a broader anxiety about whiteness that percolates all the way through Ending Things. On its own terms, Oklahoma! is often considered the first musical in the great wave of heroic Americana that dominated musical theatre mid-century – a vision of the frontier as a space of optimism, buoyancy and fulfilment of the American Dream. Seventy years later, that dream has been totally denuded, and Kaufman traces this process through two tropes that have become especially prominent in recent years for films that contemplate the futurity of white culture.
First, recent films about whiteness often frame it in terms of vast and unending snowy landscapes. These landscapes are literally white, but they also reflect a fantasy of Scandinavia as a space of indigenous whiteness, as well as the legacy of whiteness on the polar regions and climate change. From Downsizing to Where’d You Go Bernadette, these snowy landscapes also function as a double-edged sword – as worlds of purified whiteness, and worlds denuded by white purity – and reach a kind of logical conclusion here, in the endless and undifferentiated snow drifts that collapse all space and time into a whiteout singularity.
Second, recent films about whiteness often contemplate it as a historical object to be curated and classified, resulting in motifs of miniaturism, puppetry and doll houses. This is evident in a variety of recent films, from Hereditary to Downsizing to the work of Wes Anderson, but these motifs have also been a key component of Kaufman’s work too, from the puppetry of Being John Malkovich to the stop-motion animation of Anomalisa. All the interiors in Ending Things also look like miniatures, partly because the settings are so twee, partly because the body language is so awkward (Jake’s mother and father often move like puppets on a string) and partly because the interminable car trips degrade any organic or authentic sense of space.
Yet both of those motifs pale compared to the tenor of Kaufman’s dialogue, which plays as a parody of white methods of knowing, classifying and organizing knowledge. This is especially clear in the interminable car scenes to and from Jake’s parents house, when he and Lucy descend into a series of navel-gazing conversations that seem to go on forever. Beyond a certain point, this “dialogue” is just a series of pedantic corrections, refutations, definitions and explanations, as Lucy and Jake overtalk, overthink and overanalyze their own privilege, exhausting their own whiteness as a tenable arbiter of critical distance or cultural authority.
This exhaustion reaches its lowest point with two conversations late in the film. First, Jake recommends a book of essays by David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, especially his essay on television, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction.” Recommending Wallace has become shorthand for a certain kind of white mansplaining in recent years, and that trends continues here, since experiencing Kaufman’s film is like watching Wallace’s theories of television play out as an anxiety about drab whiteness. Whether Kaufman is critiquing or identifying with this position is unclear, but he does double down on it as this interminable dialogue deepens, presenting Lucy as a specialty in a vast array of areas, only for Jake to mansplain them to her every time she raises or signals her expertise.
In that sense, Ending Things plays as a mourning for mansplaining as a hallmark of white cultural capital, although this mourning takes an provocative and unusual turn with the second climactic conversation – the last before we arrive at Jake’s high school. When Jake tells Lucy that he loves the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” she explains to him why it’s now considered problematic, drawing on the considerable critical attention its lyrics have received in recent years. Rather than resist her, however, Jake prompty and performatively apologises for his ignorance, suggesting that performative wokeness, like mansplaining, is one of the last bastions of white cultural legitimacy – of a white status quo desperate to repress that there is anything outside their own endless disquisitions, definitions, corrections and conceptions.
As much as Ending Things might yearn for an outside, then, it also fears an outside, situating most of its discussions in cars, in a blizzard, with no sense of the external world, and no sense of time moving forward. When we do finally move “outside,” in the final scenes, it’s only by moving back inside, and back in time, in the form of two nostalgic reveries that unfold in Jake’s high school. In the first, he and Lucy watch alternate versions of themselves dance through a stylised sequence that ends with them uniting in front of a pastor as a veil drops on Lucy’s head. This fantasia is momentarily broken when the veil drops away, but it descends again, figuratively, in the light dusting of snow that settles on the dancers as they reunite in the gym.
From there, Kaufman returns to the janitor, and to the animation of Anomalisa, taking us through a series of awkward and ugly animated sequences to the final spectacle – Jake accepting an award against the set for Oklahoma! While the audience is full of spectators, and while Jake ends with a song about hearth and home, this isn’t a performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, but an eerie evocation of the white consensus that the musical once captured. Both Jake and Lucy, who is in the audience, looked like cracked dolls, as the Oklahoma! set congeals into a vision of heroic homeland whiteness that’s now snowed under.
More specifically, these last two scenes capture a crisis in white masculinity, and white heterosexuality, that is perhaps the key to the peculiarly sulky sense of depression and disenfranchisement that percolates throughout the entire film. From the fantasy of Lucy being made over as a bride, we move to the last lines of Jake’s song, and the last lines of the film – “Go outside, get me a bride, get me a woman to call my own” – as Lucy’s plans to break up with Jake, the raison d’etre of the film’s title, are permanently deferred. In the first half she’s determined to break up with him, but the second half turns into his fantasy of being bound to her by marriage, as whiteness and heterosexuality are fused into a stasis and congealment that the film doesn’t finally want to escape. Perhaps that’s the ultimate form of depression – when the depression becomes a source of solace in itself – although it doesn’t make for the most engaging film. It makes sense that Jake is given a name and Lucy isn’t, despite the fact she’s the main character, since Kaufman’s own solipsism has never been more naked or morose than it its here – or more desperate for a muse to mansplain it all to.