Charlie Kaufman's 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' Is Unlike Anything Else on Netflix
The movie is intentionally deceiving.
Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things, which arrived on Netflix on September 4, opens with a man picking up a woman in a car to take her to meet his parents. Twenty minutes later, they arrive at their destination. That should give you a hint as to the pace at which this disarmingly brilliant movie moves. But it's also deceiving.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things plays with your sense of time and place. Who are these people? Where are they from? How long have we spent with them? Some sequences feel like they take place over the span of hours. Others over the span of years. This is the game that Kaufman is playing with his tricky, often very funny, adaptation (or perhaps interpretation is the better word) of the 2016 Iain Reid novel of the same name.
Kaufman, the writer behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has never shied away from the surreal, using outlandish, cinematic circumstances to investigate the mysteries and agonies of human existence. His directorial debut, 2008's Synecdoche, New York, is the (highly depressing) tale of a man disappearing into a piece of immersive theater as he confronts his own death.
Kaufman's latest, which he adapts and directs, is part mystery, part existential exploration of loneliness, and part its own piece of literary theory. The plot centers around a woman played by Jessie Buckley, who serves, at least at first, as both protagonist and narrator. She doesn't have a name. Or maybe she has multiple names. That's part of the confusion. She explains in her almost omnipresent voiceover that she's taking this road trip with her boyfriend, Jesse Plemons' Jake, even though she's "thinking of ending things." That revelation is almost like a tick that keeps creeping up on her as their stilted conversation gives way talk of biology and poetry.
As they drive, Kaufman occasionally presents a glimpse into another life: That of a janitor at a high school, who quietly observes the teenagers around him. These sequences are brighter and more lyrical. Just how the two stories are connected is at once extremely obvious and completely obscure, and the question of just whose reality this is starts to nag at the audience. The disorientation deepens further when Jake and his girlfriend arrive at his parents' farmhouse, where the lambs are dead and the pigs have been eaten alive by maggots. The older couple, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, seemed to have wandered in out of a horror movie or sitcom with no laugh track.
There are moments when I'm Thinking of Ending Things takes on a tenor of menace one might associate with the supernatural, and others where it seems like Kaufman is taking the piss out of, well, just about everything: relationships, movies, his audience's tolerance for meandering discussions of David Foster Wallace and John Cassavetes, as well as digressions into musical theater.
Much of I'm Thinking of Ending Things is heady and dreamlike, but what brings it back to Earth are the performances from Buckley and Plemons. Buckley has proved herself chameleon-like in recent projects as distinct Wild Rose and Chernobyl (she'll also appear in Fargo's fourth season, out later this month), and here the role requires her to flit between self-possession and doubt in the matter of mere instants. Even though he's one of the only characters with an actual name, Plemons' Jake is initially even more indecipherable, alternately creepy and kind, with a boundless amount of knowledge. In Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, The Irishman and more, the actor has displayed a talent for conveying naiveté that can at turns become weaponized. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is probably his strongest work yet, empathetic yet deeply uncomfortable. (You see shades of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of Kaufman's earlier collaborators, in him.)
It seems likely that the casual Netflix viewer might give up on I'm Thinking of Ending Things before it finishes, too exhausted by the unbroken dialogue between two people driving through an ever more blinding snowstorm, too confused by the shifts in perspective. But those who stick with the movie will be greeted with an almost euphoric hallucinatory conclusion that continues to challenge and wink until the very final beats.
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