'I'm Thinking of Ending Things': Film Review

Im Thinking Of Ending Things Still 1 - Publicity -H 2020
Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX
The antithesis of a date movie.
9/4/2020

Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley play a couple on a time-jumping metaphysical road trip in Charlie Kaufman’s exploration of memory, yearning and despair for Netflix, which also features Toni Collette and David Thewlis.

For more than two decades now, Charlie Kaufman has been examining the tricky wiring of the human mind in an eclectic yet tightly cohesive body of screen work ranging across several lauded screenplays and three more he directed himself. His films are teasing puzzles marked by surreal detours and jarring rips in the fabric of reality. Even when dealing with depression, despair and mortality, Kaufman's more playful instincts have tended to ameliorate his obsessively cerebral side. But his third feature as writer-director, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, is by far his bleakest, so steeped in suffocating anxiety it should come with a mental health advisory.

Five-plus months into a pandemic lockdown that has left many of us feeling as if life is careening along without us, this extremely challenging Netflix feature is either the perfect movie for our current moment, or the very last thing we need to experience right now while trapped in a catatonic stupor. Time has become a leaky, elastic vessel, simultaneously contracting while stretching on forever, creating an existential limbo that makes this tense, uncomfortable drama seem unnervingly prescient.

"Other animals live in the present, humans cannot, so they invented hope," says the female protagonist played with gnawing dread by Jessie Buckley, first identified as Lucy and then by several other names throughout. That invention of hope surfaces intermittently — in fragments of forced cheer and embattled optimism, glimmers of happier times past or imagined futures, in a corny ice-cream jingle or even a rapturous dream ballet lifted from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! (The intoxicating score by Jay Wadley ingeniously riffs on 1950s advertising and lush romantic musicals in those latter cases.) But the underlying melancholy is pervasive. It sinks its claws in early on and never retracts them.

In his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Spike Jonze's 2002 film, Adaptation, Kaufman turned his struggles to whittle a script out of the nonfiction Susan Orlean book The Orchid Thief into a dizzying meta-plunge into the creative process. Tackling Canadian author Iain Reid's 2016 debut novel, Kaufman set himself another challenge that would defeat most screenwriters. The seemingly impossible-to-adapt source material is categorized as a literary thriller. Its baseline narrative is straightforward enough — a young man takes his relatively new girlfriend to meet his parents at the remote farmhouse where he grew up. But its long stretches of nonlinear philosophical rumination, its enigmatic allusions to a mostly unspecified tragedy, and the contextual void in which the action takes place make it largely resistant to the standard structural dynamics of cinematic narrative.

Digging into his trademark toolbox with more concern for honoring the material than making life easy for his audience, Kaufman has probably made as complex and audaciously loopy a film as admirers of Reid’s novel could have desired. It's a tough watch, broken down into four acts punctuated by long static stretches of dialogue exchanged in the claustrophobic setting of a car traveling lonely roads under heavy snowfall.

On many levels it's a bold, brilliant work, uncompromising in its darkness and distinguished by rigorously committed performances from a superb principal cast. Yet in many fundamental ways, the movie is frustrating; it's frequently a hard slog, as distancing as it is illuminating.

The grim thought that provides the title of both the novel and the film lurches into the head of Buckley’s character in the opening moments. Or as Łukasz Żal's camera slowly steers its mournful gaze around the empty rooms and hallways of the house that is her destination, taking in its sad hodgepodge of floral wallpapers and chintzy décor, the suggestion takes root that the thought has been loitering for some time, perhaps not even hatched but planted there fully-formed. The unspoken impulse takes on such palpable shape that her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), sitting beside her in the driver's seat, picks up on it as if she said it out loud.

The couple are on their first road trip, and the young woman (let's call her Lucy for the sake of simplicity) is already regretting "the proverbial next step" of agreeing to meet Jake's parents when she sees no future in their relationship. Jake seems to have an idealized notion of her. His halting attempts at relaxed banter carry quiet pangs of desperation, her responses alternately polite and closed-off. The slightly strained formality between them makes you wonder how the couple got this far into their relationship, which is somewhere between a month and seven weeks, the exact point unclear to Lucy.

Jake expresses his affection for road trips: "It's good to remind yourself the world's larger than the inside of your head." Lucy, by contrast, seems inescapably entangled in her thoughts no matter how far they travel. She's either a quantum physicist, a poet, a painter or all three, at one point reciting a poem she's working on (actually Bonedog, by Toronto-based poet Eva H.D.) that gives anguished form to her uncertainties about the relationship. Her coiled anxieties are underscored by the monotonous mechanical drone of the windshield wipers.

Their arrival at the home of Jake's parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, both riveting) only heightens Lucy's doubts. Despite seeing his mother waving excitedly from an upstairs window, he delays going inside the house, insisting on giving Lucy an abridged tour of the farm. This prompts contemplation of the miserable lives of sheep and a horror story about euthanized pigs that will resurface in an eerie animated interlude later on. The family's border collie appears and disappears in ways that suggest it may no longer be living.

The awkward humor of Jake's parents is both welcoming and unsettling. His mother laughs too loud and too long at jokes, occasionally struggling to get words out due to the cognitive decline of a mysterious illness. His father launches into a mini-rant against abstract art, saying, "I like paintings where you know what you're looking at." It's around this point that the abstraction of Kaufman's approach becomes clearer in a film that nonetheless continues to keep you guessing about where it's headed.

Glimpses of an elderly high school janitor (Guy Boyd) who may or may not actually be Jake are threaded throughout, including his visions of a cowboy and his gal right out of a vintage movie musical, dancing down locker corridors. In one droll scene, he watches the end of a rom-com credited to Robert Zemeckis, suggesting a happy ending that will be elusive in real life.

Back at the family farmhouse, Jake's parents have begun to age forwards and backwards, speeding into dementia and physical decline or reverting to youthful pep, destabilizing our own perceptions as much as Lucy's. Jake, meanwhile, keeps hedging on heading back to the city, despite the intensifying blizzard that threatens to strand them there overnight, and Lucy starts receiving mystery calls, alerting her (in the voice of Oliver Platt): "There's only one question to resolve." Jake's childhood bedroom contains clues that figure in their conversations — a volume of Wordsworth poems, an anthology of Pauline Kael film reviews, the landscape paintings of Ralph Blakelock.

This is a heady mix, and when the young couple hit the road again, with an hour of running time left to go as well as a couple of bizarre unscheduled diversions, it doesn't acquire complete lucidity. But as an alternate-reality mood piece that toys disturbingly with our grasp of time and memory, and our ability to distinguish needling thought from tangible experience, it has undeniable power.

There are few of the bittersweet reflections here that softened the brittle edges of Kaufman's lovely 2015 stop-motion animation film Anomalisa. But if you stay with the challenging drama there's haunting pathos in its outcome.

Buckley is the film's anchor, giving human form to its corrosive introspection even as Lucy remains remote and unknowable. But toward the end, Kaufman makes a decisive pivot back to Jake, increasingly unsure about the extent to which he has merely projected his desires onto a woman with whom he's fundamentally incompatible. That's if she even truly exists outside his — or the janitor's — imagination. Is he Curly, the swaggering cowboy in Oklahoma! who sweeps Laurey off her feet, or Jud, the fatalistic misfit destined for pain and solitude? The extent to which the classic musical is incorporated makes you wonder whether Kaufman saw director Daniel Fish's revisionist revival on stage, which exposed dark seams in the heartland soil very much echoed here.

Plemons establishes himself with this role as the heir apparent to Philip Seymour Hoffman, continuing in a similar vein of morose interiority displayed by the late actor in Kaufman's 2008 directing debut, Synecdoche, New York. The tragic grandeur of his performance and the aching burden of Jake's secrets creep up on you, just like the chilly intimacy, the confronting stillness of the visuals by Żal, the gifted Polish cinematographer who shot Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida and Cold War. I'm Thinking of Ending Things may ultimately withhold as much as it divulges, remaining open to interpretation, but like the thought lodged in Lucy's head, it lingers.

Production companies: Likely Story, Projective Testing Services
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd, Hadley Robinson, Gus Birney, Abby Quinn, Colby Minifie, Jason Ralph, Frederick C. Wodin, Ryan Steele, Unity Phelan
Director-screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman, based on the novel by Iain Reid
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Charlie Kaufman, Robert Salerno, Stefanie Azpiazu
Executive producers: Gregory Zuk, Peter Cron
Director of photography: Łukasz Żal
Production designer: Molly Hughes
Costume designer: Melissa Toth
Music: Jay Wadley
Editor: Robert Frazen
Choreographer: Peter Walker
Animation producer: Rosa Tran
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Rori Bergman
Rated R, 134 minutes