There are some filmmakers whose name alone makes me excited to see a project. It doesn’t matter what the movie is about; their involvement promises it will at least be interesting. Writer/director Charlie Kaufman is one of those filmmakers. From Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to his incredible directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York and his puppet film Anomalisa, he explores the human psyche in fascinatingly metaphysical ways. He continues that in the psychological drama I’m Thinking of Ending Things (streaming on Netflix). It is challenging, thought-provoking and frustrating, but always compelling.
A woman travels with her boyfriend to meet his parents during a snowstorm. They’ve been dating for six or seven weeks and she likes him. However, she repeats numerous times in her narration “I’m thinking of ending things.” Is she referring to their relationship or something else? My reading of this changed constantly as I watched the movie. His parents seem nice enough; friendly, polite. Yet everything they do frustrates him. He seems cold toward them; almost angry. She wants to leave. Not out of discomfort, but because she has a big paper to work on in the morning. That’s when things get really strange, time becomes fractured, perspectives change and it becomes very hard to discuss the places I’m Thinking of Ending Things (based on the 2016 novel by Iain Reid) takes us to without revealing far too much. This is a movie that should happen to you.
A plot synopsis is pointless because a Charlie Kaufman screenplay isn’t about what happens on the surface. It is about everything that goes on underneath. It touches on aging, the passage of time, human connection, loneliness, existence, love, hate; Kaufman has a lot to say. In his own unique way, he lays bare the soul of his protagonist; their hopes, fears, and deepest beliefs. The narrative is hidden inside the characters. This may sound abstract, and it is. It is also deeply affecting.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things stars Jessie Buckley as the woman and Jesse Plemons as the man. Both of their performances are tremendously impressive. She was fantastic in last year’s music drama Wild Rose and he has been consistently great in things ranging from Breaking Bad to Fargo to Game Night. Their roles are difficult, especially as the reality of the story keeps shifting. It is easy to see how an actor could have gotten lost in either role.
Buckley needs to be confident in one second, unsure in the next; she has to display affection for her boyfriend while also being distant from him; she has to be welcoming and uncomfortable at the same time. In the opening scenes (specifically, their long car ride and the first conversation with his parents), these (plus many, many other) contradictions are confusing. It eventually becomes clear they are very intentional. The fact that Buckley is able to make everything make sense in the moment shows just how talented she is.
Plemons has an equal amount of stretching to do. He obviously thinks things are going well enough with his girlfriend, yet seems to sense that something is off. He loves his parents, even as he is resenting them. He is very expressive here, showing the emotion building on his face before it comes bursting out. The acting (including the expected strong work from Toni Collette and David Thewlis as his parents) is a large reason why this ambitious project is so successful.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things may benefit from being released direct to streaming, where its audience can find it (though at-home viewing seems to encourage distracted viewing; definitely not recommend in this case). Otherwise, it could have turned into something like mother!, which was marketed toward a wide audience it was certainly not made for. I’m sure it will be divisive. It is not for those looking for a traditional narrative structure and easy answers. Of course, if you have seen any of Kaufman’s previous work, you will assume that coming in. A lot of the stuff I have reviewed recently seems to evaporate even as I write about it. This is one I can’t stop thinking about. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some people hate it yet, for me, this is one of the best movies of the year.
5 out of 5
Jessie Buckley as The Young Woman
Jesse Plemons as Jake
Toni Collette as Mother
David Thewlis as Father
Guy Boyd as Janitor
Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman