Charlie Kaufman’s peculiarly inviting psychodrama “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” feels so enclosed that you could almost swear it was set inside a snow globe. With one gentle shake, gaudy conversations on vast existential notions shower its cozy, wintery mood one minute, only to somehow thin out and ephemerally disappear the next before you could luxuriate in their gloomy mystery. Sites trapped inside the film’s (redundant) boxed ratio look equally snug yet restricted —a blizzard-stricken, nighttime road-trip in the North East (during which a sizable portion of the movie takes place) feels curiously immobile here. Not to mention the sense of claustrophobia exuded by the film’s other major location, a handsomely sized, multi-story farm house looking as generically quaint as your average country Bed & Breakfast.
To be clear, these aren’t all disapproving observations, as the film’s transitory and insular-looking quality somehow remains challenging and compulsively watchable throughout, even when its ideas don’t really go anywhere and chase one another in a loop instead; and even when one can’t quite explain what the hell just happened. Here are some questions you might ask yourself during “I’m Thinking of Ending Things:” “Is this scene reality or fantasy?” “Did I actually just watch the finale of a derisive and fake Robert Zemeckis movie (with a “Forrest Gump”-ian score to boot)?” “How does this depressing poem, this show-tune from “Oklahoma!,” this passage from a vintage film review belong in here?” “Why is there an ominous animated pig bang in the middle of my screen?”
I won’t blame you if you aren’t still with me, but with the risk of putting you off, allow me to warn you that watching Kaufman’s latest—his third and philosophically grandest theatrical feature for which he wears dual hats as a writer and director—will be very much like the experience of reading these seemingly unrelated inquiries back to back. In that, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” very much lives in its own insular and confusing cul-de-sac, made up of a rabbit hole of weighty (if not partially-formed) stray thoughts on life, art, identity, family and the passage of time. Its continually self-revising structure—akin to Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León’s hallucinatory animation “The Wolf House”—captured by cinematographer Lucasz Zal’s dreamlike lens, is designed to both fascinate and frustrate. Think of it like strolling through Kaufman’s own fragmented mind, hyper aware each and every second just how tough, how exquisitely painful, absurd and even utterly pointless it is to be present in the right now.
A film for incurable daydreamers and memory dwellers, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is informed by these Kaufman-esque existential worries to such an acute extent that one wonders why the film wasn’t simply called “Being Charlie Kaufman.” (And maybe it would have been, had it not been an adaptation of Iain Reid’s award-winning 2016 novel with the same name.) Thus, the filmmaker’s unmistakably signature themes and attributes adorn this adaptation, which feels like a spiritual mate of sorts to Amy Seimetz’s recently released “She Dies Tomorrow” in its means towards pondering mortality. To the careful eye, painful memories of “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” sorrowful midlife monotonies of “Anomalisa” and cavernous artistic insecurities in “Synecdoche, New York” will be all here to spot and untangle. Yes, it’s all a bit exhausting, a bit miserable, and a bit too conceptually ambitious for its own good—your mileage with it might be limited if you don’t consent to its idiosyncrasy to kick in straight away.
But I’m hoping you’ll do just that right at the start and resolve to enjoying the ride when you hear the film’s title from the terrifically mournful Jessie Buckley’s ultimately unnamed character. (She gets called by multiple names throughout the film. For this review’s purposes, let’s refer to her as Lucia just to make things easier to follow.) While Lucia doesn’t really speak the words, her mind’s voice unambiguously declares: she is thinking of ending things. Sitting inside an in-motion car with her newish boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons, with a Philip Seymour Hoffman-esque gravity), Lucia is on her way to visit Jake’s parents for the first time. He warns her there might not be much of a culinary spread and they might be better off stopping for a snack. She refuses, still bizarrely thinking that she might end things.
Not that Lucia is suicidal or unhappy on paper. She truly likes Jake, a man she finds smart, curious and attentive. The duo talks about all sorts of wide-ranging intellectual pursuits in the car while a fierce storm rages outside: musicals (Jake loves them), feminism (is “Baby It’s Cold Outside” a rape-y song?), William Wordsworth, poetry, Pauline Kael (more on her later) and so on. Elsewhere, we follow a school janitor (Guy Boyd) going on about his daily routine, a story thread Kaufman and his editor Robert Frazen weave into Lucia and Jake’s escapade in mazy increments, saving the shaky pay-off for the last act.
When Jake and Lucia finally arrive at the family home, a much-welcome dose of absurdist humor finally makes an appearance—his overbearing mom (a hilariously manic, gradually heartbreaking Toni Collette) and motor-mouth dad (David Thewlis, as pompously nervy as he was in “Anomalisa”) prove to be both welcoming and somewhat creepy. But there is at least food and dessert to follow, served with a generous side of awkwardness. Since this isn’t your average “Meet the Parents,” the farmhouse segment is when Kaufman really starts dissecting the existential queries he had teased early on. In due course, we start noticing slight fluctuations in Lucia’s relaxed yet carefully coordinated outfit (brilliantly costumed by designer Melissa Toth): a cozy, striped knit, draped over a charming floral dress. Her hair also changes, going from up to down to back up, as does her profession and (as indicated before), name. Similar blink-and-you’ll-miss alterations occur in the rest of the characters, with differences becoming more and more pronounced as the parents age, get ill or just disappear to Lucia’s (and our) great discomfort and horror, only to switch back to their initial selves moments later.
Do these loopy variations happen in Lucia’s thoughts only, as she imagines the future, mulls over the past and self-consciously reflects on her own self-image? Or are the thoughts the true reality of Kaufman’s film? You will be missing out on a lot if you seek for a definitive answer here. Try instead pondering what appears to be the two main deliberations at the heart of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” while swooning over a lovely piece of ballet dancing that springs in a school corridor, while Jake sings a ballad from “Oklahoma!” or during an uncanny excursion to an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor. The first one of these inquiries is whether human beings are stationary against the passage of time. The second is whether thoughts are closer to truth than action. (I am convinced they might be.)
It’s fascinating to consider this second contemplation alongside the words of Pauline Kael in her essay on/(negative) review of John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence,” an excerpt of which is randomly read in the film. Kael says Cassavetes shows “intense suffering from nameless causes,” and that “‘A Woman…’ is a tribute to the depth of feelings that people can’t express,” and that “We often can’t tell whether the characters are meant to be unconscious of what they’re doing, or whether it’s Cassavetes who’s unconscious.” These words are so true of Kaufman’s latest film also, that part of me wonders if he oddly had Kael’s review top of mind as he was writing it. Nevertheless, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a weird, infinite, messy cacophony of reflections, somehow expansive in its narrowness and confrontational in its honesty to a soul-baring degree. [B/B+]
“I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” is available September 4 on Netflix.