The credits of I’m Thinking of Ending Things come as a surprise. They seemingly fade into view a scene or two early, as if concealing one final twist of the knife or a flourish that will unlock the various mysteries of Charle Kaufman’s latest mind-bending journey into the more miserable corners of the human psyche. But in many ways their premature arrival is a perfect fit for the movie – a jagged, prickly monster of a drama that loathes the notion of the audience feeling comfortable for even a second.
To begin with, it’s all pretty simple. The terrific Wild Rose star Jessie Buckley plays a physics student, riding shotgun as boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) drives them through a blizzard to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) for the first time. Her inner monologue repeatedly comes back to the title. They’ve only been together a short time – six weeks or seven, she can’t quite remember – and he’s “a nice guy, but it’s not going anywhere”. Dumpsville. Population: Jake. An unbalancing evening with the prospective in-laws and a seemingly endless drive through the snow – “this road seems excessively long,” says Buckley in darkly comic panic – doesn’t change her mind.
But there’s something not quite right from the start. There’s a suggestion that Buckley’s internal monologue might not entirely be private, with Plemons occasionally seeming to respond to something his partner was thinking, rather than something she said out loud. Sometimes the camera’s in slightly the wrong place, or someone looks right down the lens and Robert Frazen’s editing jumps and flits with disorientating unpredictability. Even those familiar with the Iain Reid source novel can’t sit back and relax. There’s a sense that, whatever the mental state of the characters, the architect of this world is a few oboes short of an orchestra.
Given all of the structural anarchy and tonal flip-flopping around them, it’s impressive that both Buckley and Plemons serve as anchors holding this whole tangled affair down to Earth. Despite them being handed some very Kaufman dialogue – the film is often as pretentious as a pontificating uni bro gently sozzled on cheap whiskey – they imbue their characters with tenderness and humanity. It takes a lot of relatable charisma to be able to sell the words “I guess I was thinking about time”, but Buckley hasn’t yet met a line of dialogue she can’t deliver convincingly with natural charm and a half-smile.
The demands on both Buckley and Plemons are enormous. At least half of the movie’s fairly hefty running time is devoted to the two of them chatting and driving, with just the gently whistling wind, the rumble of the engine, and the metronomic thunk of the windscreen wipers for company. These scenes veer from idle nattering to philosophical debate, tearful poetry recitation, and a lengthy evocation of Pauline Kael reviewing John Cassavetes. This is a movie that references Wordsworth, Tolstoy, the musical Oklahoma! and the rape undertones of Baby It’s Cold Outside – pretentious yes, but eclectic too.
The filling in the travel scene sandwich is the gloriously madcap meet-the-parents sequence, in which David Thewlis and Toni Collette make the absolute most of the ability to chow down on the scenery-chewing buffet. Collette jitters and stutters in a performance that might be even more terrifying than her work in Hereditary, while the delightfully disquieting Thewlis is simply impossible to read – permanently hunched over like he’s trying to fold into himself, his Lancashire accent going entirely unexplained. In these scenes, Kaufman leans heavily into horror iconography, balancing subtlety with sinister silliness to chilling effect.
It’s tempting to read I’m Thinking of Ending Things like a low-budget, stagey take on a Christopher Nolan picture – a puzzle box waiting to be unlocked. But in Kaufman’s nightmare world, every apparent clue – a mysterious photo, an endless walk down an Escher-like staircase, seemingly random scenes of a high school janitor (Guy Boyd) – is just as likely to lead down a blind alley as it is to miraculously make sense of everything. Kaufman’s thesis is almost certainly that looking for meaning in anything is effectively a fruitless endeavour.
And this is certainly a moody, miserable film. This feels like an older and more cynical Kaufman than the one who wrote the surprisingly optimistic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, as a result, it’s often an utterly infuriating watch. Its nihilistic philosophy doesn’t coddle the audience and neither does its penchant for bizarre left-turns into increasingly surreal flourishes in the third act. Some of them are simply inspired, some of them just about work and others are total head-scratchers.
But that doesn’t matter too much. Kaufman has taken the novel, somehow amplified its bleak storytelling and constructed a bizarro meditation on the transience of life, the futility of doomed relationships and the trauma of loneliness. It’s as audacious as it is maddening and it’s the sort of film that takes malicious pleasure in forcing the audience to relive its cruel mental ballet – figurative throughout and, in one scene, literal.
Hours after those credits cruelly punctured the bizarre reverie the film placed me in, my stomach is still a mess of knots and the movie’s doomy narrative is moving its belongings into an apartment in my mind. I won’t be able to shift it in a hurry.
Put simply, I’m thinking of I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Dir: Charlie Kaufman
Scr: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd, Oliver Platt, Colby Minifie
Prd: Charlie Kaufman, Stefanie Azpiazu, Anthony Bregman, Robert Salerno
DOP: Lukasz Zal
Music: Jay Wadley
Run time: 134 minutes
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available on Netflix now.