- I’m Thinking of Ending Things
- Directed by Charlie Kaufman
- Written by Charlie Kaufman, based on the novel by Iain Reid
- Starring Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons and Toni Collette
- Classification R; 134 minutes
It is nerve-wracking, writing a review of a Charlie Kaufman film. For one thing, the man has perfected a MacArthur-genius-level brand of auteur-esque mystique through his cerebral and near-uniformly excellent filmography. Even attempting to untangle his work risks making a dunce of yourself, as I now realize re-reading my embarrassingly lightweight pan of his last directorial effort, Anomalisa. For another thing, make one false move and Kaufman just might write a 700-page novel about you, as he did with this summer’s Antkind, a freewheeling satire that takes direct aim at The New Yorker’s Richard Brody. (I’m sure I’ll pop up in the sequel.)
But the task of tackling Kaufman gets trickier when focusing on his latest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which is based on Canadian writer Iain Reid’s twisty 2016 novel. Not because this new film about a couple’s road trip from hell is an adaptation in the same sense that Kaufman’s Adaptation was an “adaptation.” There are no invented meta-characters this time, no deliberate distortions of real-life figures, and Kaufman sticks close enough to Reid’s original text that it should drive Susan Orlean to drink. (Why him and not me, she must be wondering, her finger hovering over the tweet button.)
No, the real dilemma about discussing I’m Thinking of Ending Things involves its final 20 minutes, when Kaufman takes every idea that he has been exploring up until that point – the reliability of memory, the agenda of storytellers, the tenuous nature of relationships, the overwhelming incongruity of life – and tosses them into a mesmerizing and maddening pit of fantasy and delusion.
Although he narratively deviates from Reid’s ending, the definitiveness of which is itself up for debate, Kaufman produces a finale so close in spirit to the novel that it feels pulled from the same pages. Or at least ripped from an alternate-universe version of Reid’s book, which should suit both adapter and adaptee just fine.
And then ... well, it is unfair to say much more until you have the chance to experience the work yourself. It is beautiful, delirious, frustrating and so wedded to that film-critic notion of the unimpeachable “Kaufman-esque” sensibility that there is little point in arguing with its power, with its immeasurable impact. It works, even (especially?) when it’s not supposed to.
So that leaves us to discuss the first two-thirds of the film, which have already been documented well enough by Netflix’s trailer and marketing materials.
After just six weeks of dating, Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his nameless girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) head out to the country to visit Jake’s parents. It is snowing, the farmland is desolate, and Jake’s girlfriend is thinking of, well, ending things. We know this because she serves as the film’s narrator, her inner thoughts walking the film through all manner of doubts, insecurities, apprehensions and curious forgetfulness. Have we been dating six weeks or seven, she wonders. How did we meet again? Why did I agree to this trip? When can I go back home?
As the two engage in sometimes frivolous, sometimes philosophical conversation, and as the snowstorm grows stronger outside their vehicle, a suffocating sense of uneasy yet often darkly funny dread seeps in. It is an atmosphere that only increases in its tittering anxiety once the couple reach Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis), whose home and relationship with their son are complicated, to put it mildly.
Kaufman may have a reputation as a writer’s writer – no matter the thoughts of screenwriting guru Robert McKee – but he also proves himself as a skilled wringer of performances. Buckley (Beast, Wild Rose) continues her streak of grounding heavy-duty narratives with emotionally shattering interiority, while Plemons extends his nice-guy persona into some sickly troubling territory. (Did Kaufman cast Plemons because of the actor’s uncanny resemblance to the director’s Synecdoche, New York collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman? Probably not, but it’s still fun to daydream the connection.)
What’s more, Kaufman uses the deliberate lack of chemistry between Buckley and Plemons to startling effect, making the pair’s winding road-trip conversations move with a compellingly awkward urgency.
It helps, although it is little surprise, that Kaufman embraces the artifice of the film itself. For the first stretch of the movie, Kaufman and cinematographer Lukasz Zal – shooting in the boxy 1.37:1 ratio – rarely break from capturing Jake and his girlfriend inside the stifling confines of their car. The two are like prisoners on a soundstage, amplified by the sense that neither Kaufman nor Zal are concerned about the snowy landscape behind them appearing like the obvious product of a green screen.
This playfulness intensifies once the couple arrive at their destination, and the question of who is telling whose story bubbles up. Certain slips in the narrative – characters change clothes, names, accents and ages – coincide with breaks in visual perspective. At one point, we’re seeing the story through Jake’s eyes. Then the Girlfriend’s. Or is her name Lucy? Yvonne? The aesthetic hiccups are halfway between subtle and jackhammer obvious, but it works.
Where Kaufman unintentionally slips is in the margins. While he has great control over Buckley and Plemons, Collette either escapes his grasp or was unfortunately encouraged by her director to run through a gamut of tics that not-so-fondly recall her terrorized possession in Hereditary. And though it’s funny to watch Kaufman’s script take big swings at Robert Zemeckis and Pauline Kael, of all people, the jokes rip the film’s world away in a manner that feels mostly rude.
Then there’s that ending, an all-you-can-gorge buffet of Kaufman-esque tastes. I hesitate – partly out of courtesy to the director, partly out of a fear of inadequate articulateness – to say much more than that the filmmaker employs animation, ballet and a ballad from the musical Oklahoma! in an appreciatively upsetting manner. (Also: Between this movie and HBO’s recent Watchmen miniseries, the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates are getting a real workout these days.)
Even those who enjoyed the ambivalent codas of Anomalisa and Synecdoche, New York might have a difficult time accepting the final few seconds of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (and Netflix doesn’t play ball, either, too quickly shrinking the screen to promote its other offerings). But this is likely what Kaufman wants. Not in a desire to be bound for reassessment; I believe that he simply wants you to embrace your most immediate, unshakable reaction. That’s what the movie is asking of its characters, after all. Make your choices and move on, or learn to live with a lifetime of regret that threatens to morph into half-truths and full-on delusions.
However you view the film’s finale – and I’m choosing to embrace the desperate beauty of it – there is no real wrong interpretation. Unless the director doesn’t like it. Then you just might find yourself the subject of a Charlie Kaufman novel, too.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix starting Sept. 4
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