Easily the most cerebral, misanthropic, slightly flawed, yet liberating of Charlie Kaufman’s work, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” blends the limits of surrealism and horror into a feature-length drama that actually echoes the work of Bergman and Fellini. Like Kaufman’s other audacious work such as “Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Synecdoche, New York,” and “Anomalisa”, his third film as writer-director and eighth screenplay is an adaptation of Lain Raid’s acclaimed novel as Kaufman takes a surreal approach to its meditation on loneliness, relationships, and the human condition.
On the surface “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” sounds simple as it’s about a story of a woman who goes on a road trip with her new boyfriend during a snow blizzard to meet his parents at their remote farm house. The book by Raid follows more of the tropes of being a horror work in the tradition of Stephen King or Dean Koontz, but Kaufman doesn’t ground his adaptation in horror as he is more fascinated in exploring human truths of aging, regret and isolation which can be every bit as unnerving as any jump scare or brooding atmosphere you would find in any modern horror film.
Unfortunately, the movie suffers from repetition and a few outlandish surreal moments that don’t feel as earned that prevent it from reaching a masterpiece level. Writer-director Kaufman is known for his ferociously imaginative mind, that often explores deeply existential themes about human frailty, as was evident in his previous animated film “Anomalisa”, and he carries out some of these same ideas while still making the material fresh and inventive. The end result is an unforgettable and at times frustrating enigmatic puzzle that holds a promising build-up, an outstanding second act, and a bizarre finale that leaves you still trying to wrap your head together even past the end credits.
There is something almost Lynchian about the trip to the road trip, almost like it could have played out as a lost episode or two in Lynch’s own “Twin Peaks: The Return” as it moves back and forth between reality and a dreamlike structure that clearly holds a commentary on the character’s own subconscious. The entire film ends up being a ghostly, dreamlike meditation on the unspoken longing of human connection that has been apparent in all of Kaufman’s body of work. Yet, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” feels the most academic and philosophical, even most dizzying out of them all as we see characters in and out of time realms and dreams as if they are trapped in a state of purgatory. There is a memorable line in the film: “Animals live in the present. Humans cannot. So they invented hope.” Kaufman carries on these existential ideas in how hope is what guides humanity through our short existence as we’re always worried about our fate in the future as it pertains to our hope, happiness, human connection that we often get lost in our own existence.
Back to the plot, the film opens with a young woman (Jessie Buckley-who takes on different names, voices, and even an appearance during the course of the film) traveling with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), and she begins to suddenly have second thoughts on her relationship with Jake. We hear her thoughts out loud, while she admires Jake on many levels, but you can sense a large array of emotions that exist within their brief relationship that ranges from awkward tension to undeniable fondness they hold for one another.
As the trip escalates they finally arrive at the family farm, and the young woman’s thoughts on the relationship become even more apparent. She begins to second guess who she is, where she is, and her own reality seems impervious to time as we see Collette and David Thewlis appear in and out of scenes within different age appearances.
What is perplexing with “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is the surrealism and themes that leave many deep interpretations of who this mystery woman is, and what she possibly represents. One moment she is called Amy, the next she is called Lucy, another time Yvonne. Over time, we see many different aspects change in her character and career aspirations, one moment she is a painter, the next she is attending college as she is studying quantum psychics, and her vernacular changes as she impersonates legendary film critic Paulinen Kael to perfection as she critiques the John Cassavetes film “A Woman Under the Influence.”
What all this exactly means is left very ambiguous, but it’s very possible that she is a reflection of some sort. Throughout the course of the film Kaufman takes almost intermission-style breaks to a lonely, elderly high school janitor (Guy Boyd) who carries on with his janitorial duties. This is where the film leaves many ambiguous and fascinating questions. We often wonder if this is Jake now older? Is what we are seeing before Jake’s own memories, reflections, or recollections of his fragmented psyche? Is the woman a reflection of a lost love? Possibly collage of previous women Jake was involved with, or a fantasy of the right person Jake wants to be with? Possibly it can be all these things and that is the mystifying beauty Charlie Kaufman once again delivers in his most baffling, ambitious but most flawed work to date.
On a technical level, Kaufman proves to be every bit as conceptual as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry (the other filmmakers that directed his previous films such as “Being John Makovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Using rich atmosphere with a squeezed in 4:3 aspect ratio, the film’s cinematography is by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Lukasz Zal (“Cold War”) that allows the viewer to feel confined and suffocated into this anxiety-inducing world of doubts, uncertainties, and tensions that arise from the characters. Just as Nolan played with time and space recently in “Tenet,” Kuafman also toys around with the concept of time and space as we see it unfold in the most unusual ways.
The use of the car shots hold much artistry and the exchanges between Buckley and Plemons range from witty to distraught, all the way to intense and painfully uncomfortable as they debate and argue over art, literature, cinema, life, and other philosophies. Most of their conversations are filmed from the outside of the car, which only heightens to the discomfort of their fading connection.
Buckley and Plemons are absolutely first-rate here, ranging from sophisticated, they are the perfect actors that capture the perfect beats that are needed for the film. Both characters bring uncomfortable truths about people enduring growing anxiety that exists within their relationship without ever derailing into theatrics or histrionics that the source material could easily fall victim to.
The feeling of unease hovers over the film as it only escalates at Jake’s farm house. Something feels uncertain from the very beginning once Jake’s mother waves through a window, and it becomes even stranger once it takes a dreadfully long time for his parents to come downstairs to greet them. Once his parents come down the stairs, played by Collette and Thewlis, they are very pleasant, who are very eager to learn how Jake met his new girlfriend, but Jake’s anxieties grow deeper as he very frustrated by his mom’s embarrassing stories and mannerisms making it one of the most painfully uncomfortable moments in the film. Jake’s girlfriend keeps insisting she needs to get back home that night to finish a research paper, and the two venture back home as the snow storm appears to get more and more treacherous, which is clearly a metaphor for the current state of their relationship. They even stop at Jake’s childhood ice cream parlor that just happens to be open in the films most surreal and memorable scenes that expertly builds up towards the films conclusion.
It’s commanding how Netflix is releasing something so bold like “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” with great marketing. It’s something that many audiences are certainly going to despise due to its misleading trailer that markets it as a horror film. Many will dismiss the film either as “confusing” or “pretentious.” It’s certainly a film that demands great attention, it’s also a film that will be benefited by repeat viewings. It’s not a horror film in a traditional sense, however, the film is very unnerving as it does get under your skin in just how effective and uncomfortable Kaufman delivers the material. The film is certainly haunting as it’s still plaguing in my mind hours and hours upon viewing as I write this. It is certainly a film you must surrender yourself to, and once you do you will treasure just how humane the film really is on its inevitable truths of our human existence.
Which leaves me to the film’s baffling ending, which holds moments that work, other moments didn’t work too much for me. Without revealing anything in too much great detail, there are some abstractions involving an animated pig that didn’t work and felt underwhelming. There is also a musical dance sequence that feels oddly misplaced, though it represents a more romanticized version of what we think defines love. If this all sounds confounding because it is. When we watch a Charlie Kaufman film, we will always anticipate something strange, odd, and even original. Yet the final images that made sense on a thematic level only perplexed me more with Kaufman’s odd decisions that didn’t feel necessary to the story. It felt as if Kaufman was only attempting to be “surreal” or “crazy” for the sake of being that way when in fact some of the abstractions could have been more restraint and could have easily delivered the same payoff Kaufman was going for.
Despite these quibbles, there is a wisdom of how memories interact with our longings. We venture on life living, some find love, while others lose love, and we all go through cycles of cherish, joy, passion, loss, and pain. All around “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a sorrow meditation on fantasy, missed opportunities, and regret, and how we must cherish the present more so we can indeed have a brighter future before it slips away and becomes irreversible. Regardless of how cynical the film might appear to be, on the surface there is something pure and harmonic to be found in Kaufman’s latest framework.