‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’: Charlie Kaufman’s Latest May Be the Best Film of the Year
The “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” scribe’s latest, now streaming on Netflix, is an inventive portrait of despair—and the best film of the year (so far).
More than the fancifully surreal narrative conceits around which his celebrated screenplays pivot, it’s despair that’s Charlie Kaufman’s true stock and trade. A melancholic air once again lingers over his latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a dazzling swirl of longing, regret, and grief that both faithfully adapts Iain Reid’s 2016 debut novel of the same name, and—in various flourishes, as well as its closing passages—takes flight into distinctly Kaufman-esque realms of sorrowful fantasy. Chilling, amusing, beguiling and arguably the writer/director’s finest to date, it’s the new leading candidate for best film of the year.
Following Reid’s basic template, I’m Thinking of Ending Things (premiering Sept. 4 on Netflix) concerns a snowy winter road trip by a young woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents’ rural farmhouse home. Buckley’s protagonist is alternately referred to in Kaufman’s script as Lucy, Yvonne, Louisa and Amy (or Ames, for short), and that confusion is a reflection of her own fundamental ignorance of self. Such identity fuzziness extends to her profession, which might be a quantum physicist, a movie critic, or a painter of landscapes with a focus on emotional interiority. She’s many intellectual, introspective things at once, and the fact that her cinematic expertise is expressed via an erudite (and deliberately film review-ish) treatise on John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and its “fragmented” protagonist only further speaks to her inherently splintered nature.
Lucy is, per the feature’s title, thinking of ending things with Jake, for reasons she can’t quite pin down. If a bit of a smarty pants, Jake is intelligent, funny, charming and good looking, and in interior-voice narration, she chalks up her intention to stop seeing him—and her contrary willingness to first meet his parents, the “proverbial next step” in their relationship—as perhaps a byproduct of human nature. During the course of their drive to Jake’s childhood abode, Lucy expresses—verbally, and to herself—all sorts of doubts, discontent, self-recriminations, anger, fear of mortality, alienation, and cluelessness about the world and everyone in it, thus encasing the proceedings in a stew of gloomy anxiety.
As in Kaufman’s prior work (particularly 2008’s postmodern masterwork Synecdoche, New York), death and decay prove ever-present concerns, and Kaufman filters them through Lucy as she and Jake engage in wildly veering conversation. Theirs is a slightly arrhythmic and weird dynamic, which also goes for the film itself. Lucy’s early sight of a brand new swing set in the front yard of an abandoned house is a vision of simultaneous disintegration and renewal that’s at the disharmonious core of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Further amplifying that schizoid atmosphere are routine cutaways to a mysterious high school janitor (Guy Boyd) who’s seen going about his dreary daily routine—a figure whose own sadness seems, in ways unspoken but powerfully felt, intimately related to Lucy’s state of flux.
“It’s good to remind yourself that the world is larger than the inside of your own head,” says Jake early on. Yet by the time he and Lucy reach his parents’ residence, and his mom (Toni Collette) and dad (David Thewlis) turn out to be going-to-seed kooks with crazily fluctuating emotions, bizarre responses to simple statements, and a habit of disappearing and reappearing at a moment’s notice—not to mention growing old, and then young again, on a whim—I’m Thinking of Ending Things begins overtly tipping its own hand as a journey into the darkest recesses of the subconscious. “There’s something ineffable—profoundly and utterly unfixably wrong here,” remarks Lucy after reciting a poem that casts home as an epicenter of drab, burdensome disaffection (“It’s like you wrote it about me,” exclaims Jake). Shooting in a boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Kaufman’s anticipatory and probing camerawork (marked by strikingly constricting and isolating compositions) heightens the sense that we’ve entered into a free-association dreamscape rooted in profound existential angst.
Following the couple’s bonkers evening with Jake’s parents (highlighted by a monumentally uncomfortable dinner and ensuing trip down a basement rabbit hole), I’m Thinking of Ending Things journeys deep into the night, where ice cream shop girls dispense ominous warnings and a detour to Jake’s remote high school leads to terror and reconciliation. Along the way, Kaufman dispenses many clues to the underlying nature of his tale, which hews to Jake’s belief that “There is no objective reality.” Subjectivity rules, and Kaufman brings that notion to life via an obliquely twisty-turny narrative that’s at once hypnotic and drolly funny. In a vein similar to his recent novel Antkind, he also indulges in a scathing cine-critique of movies as “viruses”; a corny romantic comedy watched by the janitor, and credited to director Robert Zemeckis, serves as Kaufman’s censure of mainstream Hollywood fare for peddling simplistic and phony uplift that runs contrary to I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ more complex, and bleak, portrait of need, remorse, and the universal desire for love and companionship.
According to Jake, time is also a concept that only exists within the mind, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things soon dispenses with traditionally lucid plotting, employing unexpected edits, varying forms of animation, and an extended expressionistic dance number to capture a grander impression of Lucy’s (and Jake’s) headspace. That Kaufman also manages to include references to David Foster Wallace, Pauline Kael, and William Wordsworth, as well as a critique of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (“a song about coercion”), merely adds to the overstuffed quality of his saga. There’s thrilling method to the filmmaker’s mad diversions; every line, and surprise, is rooted in his overarching portrait of dread over loneliness, lovelessness, and human impermanence—familiar Kaufman hang-ups that continue to feel as personal as they did in his breakthrough screenplay Being John Malkovich more than 20 years ago.
Kaufman’s writing is so dexterous and inventive, and his aesthetics are so vivid (courtesy of cinematographer Lukasz Zal, editor Robert Frazen, production designer Molly Hughes, and sound designer Lewis Goldstein) that it’s almost easy to lose track of his performers’ greatness. Collette and Thewlis are delightful as Jake’s gonzo mother and father, the former a careening tinnitus-afflicted loon and the latter a befuddled weirdo. Plemons, meanwhile, straddles the delicate line between arrogant and deferential, brusque and sweet, detached and engaged—a duality that lends the action some of its prickly edginess. Like the entirety of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, one can never quite get a firm beat on Jake, whose remoteness is a source of both off-kilter comedy and unnerving pathos.
Most of all, however, it’s Buckley who grounds I’m Thinking of Ending Things throughout its various surrealistic left turns. Wearing a flower dress beneath her coat, hat, scarf, and sweater that meshes with the wallpaper of Jake’s family house, Buckley—transitioning from cheery and upbeat, to distant and troubled, terrified, and tearfully at peace—covers an impressive emotional gamut, in the process serving as the anchor amidst the film’s tumultuous digressions. Whether situated in a car, at a dinner table, or cowering in fluorescent light-illuminated hallways, she’s at once enigmatic (to herself, and to us) and yet relatable as a vessel for the kinds of hopes and dreams and uncertainties that define us all. She’s the brilliant beating heart of this melancholic reverie, so charming and moving and altogether alive that she alone makes one wish Kaufman’s latest would never end.