If you’re not familiar with Charlie Kaufman, it’s probably best not to start with his newest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Kaufman specializes in brain-bending stories, and it’s better to get a sense of his unique rhythm in movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before attempting a movie as crazy as this one.
In those films he had the benefit of working with directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, who could interpret his writing and infuse it with their own visual style. Here, he is the director, giving him free rein to take the story wherever he pleases. And, boy, does he go out there.
On the surface, the film is about a young woman (Jessie Buckley) and a man named Jake (Jesse Plemons) who go to visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) in the country. But the film immediately delves into the inner thoughts of the woman — who’s called Lucy, Louisa, and Lucia at various points in the film, for no discernible reason — starting with the ominous consideration laid out in the title.
Based on the 2016 novel by Iain Reid (which, based on the description, appears to be just as wild), the film might make viewers question their sanity as much as the young woman. It starts off normal enough, with her and Jake spending the first 20 minutes or so talking in a car. Their relationship appears stagnant and slightly antagonistic, with their conversation mostly awkward despite having been together for around six weeks.
And then the film starts to get weird. Jake’s mom and dad are odd characters even before they age up and down in various scenes. The young woman, in addition to being called multiple names, is said to be studying quantum physics, or maybe it’s gerontology, or maybe she’s a poet, a painter, or a waitress. That last profession is referenced in a fake film watched by a nameless janitor character, who pops up in short snippets that seem to have no connection to the main story.
In other words, it’s a Charlie Kaufman movie through-and-through, where the majority of things don’t make sense, but they’re still entertaining. There are moments in the first half of the film, which runs on for a too-long 135 minutes, that are so bonkers, they’re laugh-out-loud hilarious. Even when the story gets heavier, you can never be sure what Kaufman will do next, making each moment one to be anticipated.
There is sure to be a deep reading to be found in the text, what with references to the musical Oklahoma!, the Nick Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence, and artist Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World. There’s even a full-on dance performance in the last 15 minutes that’s both haunting and baffling. I’ll leave it to others to connect the dots, if there are any to be connected.
Buckley is on the verge of making it big, with the acclaimed movie Wild Rose, the mini-series Chernobyl, and an upcoming role in the series Fargo to her credit. She plays this role just right, mixing in melancholy with bewilderment and occasional anger. Plemons is an interesting actor with an intensity that could be mistaken for understated. His character is somewhat unknowable, but he draws you in nonetheless. Collette and Thewlis are the ones who get to play around the most with their characters, and each is a delight.
I would not advise trying to make sense of anything that happens in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It’s best to just roll with whatever Kaufman throws at you and enjoy the quartet of actors who give everything they’ve got to this strange, strange film.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is available exclusively on Netflix.