What on earth is going on?

Kate Johnstone (Associate Editor for Culture) watches Tenet and I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

Christopher Nolan and Charlie Kaufman are each responsible for writing two of the best films ever made about memory – Memento (2000) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) respectively. Both have played with memory, identity, and the nature of reality – think of The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010) or Anomalisa (2015). 

Now we have the chance to compare their two most recent films, released within a week of each other: Nolan’s blockbusting, cinema-reviving Tenet, and Kaufman’s considerably lower-key I’m Thinking of Ending Things on Netflix. 

Tenet is Nolan on steroids, a super-slick, super-complicated, super-expensive extravaganza of beautiful people trying to save the world. John David Washington is ‘The Protagonist’ who is charged by someone or other to stop the future screwing up the present. It does make a change from conventional ideas about the present ruining the future. The crafty folk in the future are sending back their technology, which somehow operates in opposite time. Robert Pattinson rocks up to help out by crashing a plane, and Elizabeth Debicki realises she really doesn’t want to be married to Kenneth Branagh any more. Something happens in Kiev, then Mumbai, then Oslo. It’s all terribly complicated, but it looks amazing.

Nolan has largely given up on characterisation, the development of back stories, and any psychological insight which may arise from time-bending. The closest we come to this is a few references to the philosophical idea of the grandfather paradox: if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather, you will no longer exist and therefore be unable to travel back in time and kill your grandfather. No-one was much interested in why you might want to kill your grandfather, however.

Tenet proves that Nolan’s overriding interest is in playing with the concept of time, at the expense of everything else. A small part of me was disappointed that there really isn’t anything psychological to grab hold of in this film, as Nolan has proved before that he can do this. Yet, as I sat in a socially-distanced cinema with my mask on, watching the spectacular nonsense unfold, I very much enjoyed myself. Just don’t take it as seriously as it takes itself.

Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a different beast. There’s no budget being blown, as a sizeable chunk of the film is two people talking to each other in a car. A dramatic highlight is a snowstorm. Yet there are some similarities to Tenet, the most obvious being the viewer’s incomprehension, and more characters without names.  

Jesse Plemons (Jake) is taking his girlfriend Jessie Buckley (what is she called?) back to meet his mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis). But the girlfriend is thinking of ending things with Jake – we literally hear her thinking this, and at times Jake seems to be able to hear what she’s thinking too. Or does he? There’s a long conversation between Jake and his girlfriend in the drive through the snow to the parents’ house. One of them says, ‘Other animals live in the present. Humans cannot. So they invented hope’. This is not a normal conversation. 

I don’t want to say too much about what happens when they get to their destination, except that things get very, very weird. Kaufman revels in weird, but this time there’s a darkness to it, a sense of foreboding and unease, like an anxiety dream from which one can’t awake. What on earth is going on?

When the film ended, I simultaneously thought that it was boring and obtuse, and wanted to watch it again immediately. I can’t think of any film I’ve seen recently which has had such a haunting effect on me, but it has been both a source of pleasure and irritation to try and understand it. Whereas Nolan has moved off into abstract realms, Kaufman remains deeply engaged with exploring ideas about what makes us human, how we construct our identity, and the nature of reality. He does not, however, make it easy for even the most willing viewer. The verdict is clear: go out and see Tenet if you need to relax and switch your brain off, but stay at home and watch I’m Thinking of Ending Things if you want to think.

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