As he seems to excel at doing in one screenplay after another (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation., Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), as well as with the films he’s both written and directed (Anomalisa; Synecdoche, New York), Charlie Kaufman engages viewers with genre-less adventures of the mind as well as the body. He regularly sends us through every emotion and thought process imaginable, guiding us through stories of intrigue, tension, heartbreak and redemption, while never forgetting his roots in comedy with frequent and often unnerving sources of humor. And although each story is uniquely different, they each lodge themselves in our minds in a similar fashion, and I often don’t feel like I’ve seen a Kaufman joint until I’ve viewed it several times.
The latest is I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a not entirely faithful adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel, which takes a deceptively simple series of events and turns them into a treatise on disappointment, expectations, and the way we project certain hopes and dreams onto new relationships to see how they fit. The great Irish actress Jessie Buckley (Judy, Wild Rose, and the upcoming season of FX’s “Fargo”) stars as a character called The Young Woman in the credits, but I’m fairly certain she’s called “Lucy” at some point. She’s in a weeks’ old relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemons), and the two are driving through a would-be blizzard to the farmhouse where he grew up and his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) still live. We hear her thoughts, which begin with the much-repeated mantra that she’s thinking of ending things with Jake, but one of the first sources of tension in the movie is that we’re not sure at first what she’s thinking of ending when she first says it. Her life? This trip? Or something we know nothing about yet? She receives a series of mysterious phone calls that say they are from different callers, but they each seem to be from the same menacing voice, and like many mysterious aspects of the film, we never really get a satisfying explanation as to what’s going on with those calls. They are simply there to make the proceedings more bizarre and creepy. Mission: accomplished.
The conversation between the couple is given a running commentary by Buckley’s inner monologue, which is also a laundry list of pluses and minuses about Jake and the relationship. She clearly wants to have legitimate reason for ending things with him and not just vague impressions that things are going anywhere, especially when a trip to meet his parents might imply otherwise. But sometimes, he responds to her thoughts, which only adds to the strange and surreal nature of this trip.
Reality decides to take a serious vacation at the family farmhouse, where at first Jake just seems understandably awkward around his parents, who seem overly excited that he’s actually brought a woman home with him. They fawn over both of them, but it’s difficult not to notice how severely Jake recoils whenever his mother reaches to innocently touch his shoulder or face. Meanwhile, dear old dad seems to grow unusually attached to Lucy. We’re told that mom has been very sick lately, but we don’t see many signs of that. As the visit drags on (Lucy makes it clear she needs to return that night to get ready for the next day’s school work), the time streams in the house start to warp, and mom or dad might leave the room one age and return much older or younger—and not just their age is altered but the entire storyline within Jake’s life story.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things seems at odds with itself at times. It’s clearly told from Buckley’s perspective, but it seems to be struggling to have us see the world through Jake’s eyes. To add slightly more confusion to the mix, we also get a secondary string of scenes edited within the main story about an elderly janitor (Guy Boyd), whom we see puttering around the high school where he works, being mocked by some of the female students as he does his job. I believe we’re meant to guess the identity of the janitor, but the back half of the film is simply too obtuse to be sure. Kaufman’s primary objective is clearly to spark questions and conversation and not to answer questions with his work.
There are times, especially in the parents’ house, when the film almost takes on a Get Out quality, as if Buckley is there for an ulterior purpose, but eventually she and Jake do leave. He seems determined to take the longest and slowest route back, and their conversation goes through wild iterations, including one in which a cigarette suddenly appears in her hand, and she actually takes on the voice and words of a very famous film critic, quoting one of her most infamous negative reviews of a much-beloved film. Jake gives very familiar arguments for why the film is great, but she cuts him down in a way that Lucy would never do. Their relationship never seems more doomed.
Frankly, the final third of I’m Thinking of Ending Things left me the most confused and somewhat cold, but only because I felt I had a grip on the unreal reality of the situation up until that point. That being said, there’s a truly magical moment set in the empty hallways of Jake’s old high school that is Kaufman at his purest and most heartfelt. In the end, the movie felt less about story and more about conveying a shifting, layered sense of time and place.
It’s entirely possible (perhaps even likely) that the film will simply be too “out there” for some viewers, but give it some time and settle into the incredible character work being done by Buckley and Plemons—one of whom is fighting to fake her way through nearly every moment just to get through the day, while the other is almost too sincere and honest about his thoughts and feelings. More liberating than wholly satisfying, the movie has been called dreamlike by some, but I don’t think that’s quite what it is. It feels like Lucy’s mind is simply wandering, imagining her future with this man and his family, maybe wondering what it would be like to be a part of his slightly simple thoughts. It’s a fascinating journey, even if a great deal of it makes you feel lost the first time around. Much like another film opening this week, I’m Thinking of Ending Things almost demands multiple viewings, which is exactly what I’ll make happen.
The film is currently playing in Chicago exclusively at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, and will begin streaming on Netflix on Friday, September 4. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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