October 6, 2021

Being Jessie Buckley

By Stuart Mitchner

Charlie Kaufman’s film I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) and Iain Reid’s debut novel of the same name (2016) share the same first-person point of view, the same opening sentences, the same time sequence of settings and events, ending in a haunted high school in the middle of nowhere with a blizzard raging outside. What happens or appears to happen there is the difference between filmgoers focused on questions of meaning (“the ending of Ending Things explained”) and readers responding to the “ferocious little book’s … visionary, harrowing final pages” and a “psychological torment so impenetrable it’s impossible to escape.”

A “Molecular” Woman

I saw the film on Netflix almost six weeks ago, as I was starting a column on Camus and Afghanistan. I was so impressed by Jessie Buckley’s performance that I wanted to write about it immediately. I even tried to find room in the philosophy of the absurd for a concept in which a film’s most sympathetic character, the one who carries it, lights it up, gives it mind, heart, and soul, exists only in the imagination of her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), who may be the younger self of an elderly, terminally depressed high school janitor.

In a Sept. 17, 2020 IndieWire interview, Buckley says “Just before I went to do the audition, I got a note from Charlie that said, ‘This woman is molecular.’ I didn’t know what that meant! I was awful at chemistry, but I kind of loved that note. It could be anything to you. It kind of meant there was nothing solid, it was something that moved and broke apart and joined other atoms.” Referring to the screenplay, she describes the way it “transcended and shifted and moved from when I read it to when I was playing it, to afterwards when I watched it.” Explaining why she read Reid’s novel prior to the audition: “I take in everything. I’m like somebody who puts too much chili on my food when I cook, because I just think, ‘Just whack it all in.’ I take all the bits and I try and throw away all the bits as well, once we get to shoot.”

Buckley’s colorful, easygoing manner in the interview is reflected in her character’s ability to balance ordinary conversation with the weighty material Kaufman has given her; she’s convincing, whether she’s quoting Emerson or channeling film critic Pauline Kael. As the “I” of the title, she delivers the opening lines of the book verbatim: “I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays, it sticks, it lingers, it dominates. There’s not much I can do about it, trust me. It doesn’t go away. It’s there whether I like it or not. It’s there when I eat, when I go to bed. It’s there when I sleep. It’s there when I wake up. It’s always there. Always.” 

Buckley’s narration is intimate and affecting. Words that suggest a darker, more disturbed consciousness in the novel come across as if she were speaking directly to us, taking us into her confidence, her everyday reality. From the first moment, we’re with her when she eats, goes to bed, sleeps, wakes up, always.

The Real Thing

That Buckley’s character is so real, so credible seems an odd turn in a film ultimately committed to undermining or reshaping reality. It might have been truer to the tangled course of the narrative had she played the role as a C-student or as a know-it-all bristling with attitude, simply showing off, or being contentious, as when she disagrees with Jake, by way of Kael, about the merits of the film A Woman Under the Influence. Even then, you’re on her side, never doubting that she has the intelligence necessary to make those observations, to write poetry or paint (she does both, she’s an artist), or to knowledgeably discuss physics or philosophy or English literature. She’s “wonderful” in the Jamesian sense of the word: she’s “the real thing.”

Poetry of the Road

The car scenes between Buckley and Plemons on their way to and from Jake’s family home are where I bonded with the actress and the film. I should add at this point that while I’d never heard of Buckley, I knew and admired Plemons in Breaking Bad, season 2 of Fargo, and most recently as Landry in the series Friday Night Lights. In the car, at the wheel, he seems steady, solid, and sure, perhaps because I can’t help seeing him as a grown-up Landry who can reference Wordsworth as casually as Buckley references Oscar Wilde. His comfortable presence can be felt in the steady movement of the car through falling snow and the hypnotic rhythm of the windshield wipers that make an atmospheric background for Buckley as she recites, at his suggestion, one of her poems. That she does this so well, so naturally and compellingly, is not only a tribute to Kaufman’s direction, but to Buckley’s ability to suggest that she’s thinking the words, feeling them, almost as if she’s composing the poem in the moment, improvising as she refers to “long hours on the road, roadside assistance and ice creams, and the peculiar shapes of certain clouds and silences.” Even if you know she’s presenting an existing poem — Eva H.D.’s “Bonedog” — as her own, she remains convincingly true to herself. Still wonderful, still the real thing.

Home Strange Home

It’s jarring to leave the cozy, comfortable interior of the car for the eerie, disorienting, cringe-inducing scenes in which Buckley’s “young woman” meets Jake’s parents, played with crazed, unreal, over-the-top energy by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, who was so cringingly admirable as Varga in Fargo 3. You’re still with Buckley, sharing her discomfort, wariness, and borderline revulsion as she takes in the drafty barn and family home, a surreal farm house, like a museum containing hints of Jake’s past and enough eerie undeniable hints of her own to clue you in to the ultimate shape- and identity-shifting game plan (remember that Kaufman’s breakthrough was his screenplay for Being John Malkovich). While it’s obvious from the film’s opening moments, with the old man gazing out the window, that this will be a strange ride, we’re definitely “not in Kansas anymore” when Jake’s parents appear to change before her eyes, from their present age to the way they would have looked when he was growing up. We feel what she feels, no less puzzled, alienated, and appalled by the weirdness of it all, but even as we’re wondering what Kaufman’s up to, it doesn’t affect the balance of Buckley’s performance.

The drive home is a kind of turning point if you are less interested in the business about shifting identities than you are in the person you’ve bonded with; naturally, you share her wish to get out of there and back on the road as soon as possible, not least because the steady snow has turned into a blizzard. But she’s no less “real” to you now than she’s been throughout; if anything, the more sinister things become, the more you feel for her. You know she’s going to “end things” with Jake, not because she feels he’s usurping her identity, but because she’s losing patience with him, she’s at his mercy, especially when he insists on driving down a ghostly Blair Witch-worthy road to what may or may not be his old high school.

Film vs. Book

By now you trust that Kaufman isn’t going to make a stereotypical female victim of a character as fully and empathetically developed as Jessie Buckley’s young woman; no way is she going to be slasher movie road kill. And it’s to the novelist Iain Reid’s credit that the horror his young woman feels in the empty school building is totally, stunningly subjective; it’s the horror of Psycho without the shower sequence, The Shining without Jack and the axe. In fact, Reid reimagines King and Kubrick’s typewritten swansong to sanity (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”), taking it to the limit with four pages filled margin to margin with a single question, “What are you waiting for?” — in a novel titled I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

If you’ve become one with Buckley the way I have, you could care less about the significance of the ballet in the school building hallway, or Jake singing Judd’s lament in a high school production of Oklahoma, or his speech at the awards banquet, or the fact that an aged version of Buckley’s “young woman” is in the audience, applauding with the rest.

Kaufman’s awareness of the value of the character he and Buckley have brought to life is evident in her moment face to face with the janitor we’re supposed to assume is Jake in old age. The Jake we know, the version played by Jesse Plemons, had bolted from their parked car in pursuit of a peeping tom, leaving her to come looking for him in a building that seems as vast as the deserted hotel in The Shining. When she asks the janitor if he’s seen her “boyfriend,” he asks her what he looks like. Her response is a disjointed speech on “how hard it is to describe people,” and “the occupational hazard of being a woman.” Finally, she has to admit she can’t remember what he looks like, why would she, nothing happened, it was just one among “thousands of such non-interactions” in her life. At this point, she gives a sigh we can feel, approaches the janitor, and embraces him. Maybe this moment shows that an old man who’s thinking of ending things is being embraced by the imaginary love of his life. I see it as the warm, very real essence of this actress, truly her last moment in a film that, from my point of view, could be called Being Jessie Buckley.