Charlie Kaufman is stuck in his head and he can’t get out. Throughout his filmography, from his screenwriting debut Being John Malkovich to his recent directorial effort Anomalisa, he has specialized in characters with a fierce sense of interiority and has captured solipsistic conflict in a wholly unique way. Kaufman’s latest work, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is his first adaptation since 2002’s Adaptation but the cerebral writer-director applies his own unmistakable voice to the Iain Reid novel upon which his film is based. Even for a filmmaker who doesn’t exactly traffic in light fare, Kaufman has put together what is perhaps his most challenging movie yet and while it may not be his most rewarding, it offers another tantalizing glimpse into the mind of a true original.
We open on a snowy winter afternoon as Jake (Jesse Plemons) picks up his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) in his car so that they can travel to the modest farmhouse where he grew up. The two have only been dating several weeks and yet, Jake feels confident enough in the relationship to bring his new partner to see his mom and dad (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, respectively) for the first time. However, we learn through voiceover that Jake’s girlfriend isn’t nearly as enthusiastic about the budding “romance”, a sentiment expressed in the film’s opening line that also serves as its title. When the couple arrives at their destination, all seems to be well at first but peculiarities begin to stack up as the night moves on.
About half of I’m Thinking of Ending Things plays like a remake of Meet The Parents if it were directed by David Lynch, filled with absurdist humor and tricky editing that intentionally jars the audience’s sense of time and space. The other half, mainly consisting of the couple’s car-confined conversations during a snowstorm, is even more philosophical and verbose by comparison. But what unites these two halves is Kaufman’s pervasive sense of existential anxiety paired with a mordantly funny perspective on human nature. His illuminating screenplay, which extensively references works of great thinkers like Pauline Kael and William Wordsworth, is filled with dialogue by characters desperate to make sense of their thoughts and to find their place in a perpetually confounding world.
If this all sounds like a heavy meal, that’s because it is. Stretches of the movie make Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, his morose meditation on mortality and failure, seem like a crowd-pleaser by comparison. But where that film ultimately comes together in a relatively satisfying resolution, I’m Thinking of Ending Things seems to spiral even further into obscurity as it reaches its beguiling conclusion. Paradoxically, Kaufman’s least accessible film is being released on Netflix, where hundreds of millions of viewers will have the opportunity to stream it as many times as it takes to properly decode the knotty narrative. On a platform with a seemingly infinite amount of content, will audiences be willing to give multiple viewings to such a heady outing?
My gut tells me that many won’t and there will undoubtedly be those who are frustrated enough with the experience to not even make it through one full viewing, which is understandable. As Kaufman gets further from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his best-regarded and most well-known film, he has gotten even more uncompromising and even obstinate in his artistic vision. I wish this time around, he had chased the sublime balance of heart and head that he mastered with Sunshine but even Kaufman’s headier pursuits trump the plethora of braindead content streaming these days. Deliriously surreal and all-consuming, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a brazen inquisition of the human condition from one of the best in the business.
Score – 3.5/5
More new movies this weekend:
Opening in theaters is Tenet, the highly-anticipated Christopher Nolan thriller starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson about a spy who utilizes time manipulation to prevent World War III.
Available to rent on Disney+ is Mulan, a live-action remake of the 1998 animated film starring Liu Yifei and Donnie Yen about a young Chinese maiden who disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father.
Available to rent on demand is Feels Good Man, a documentary about the creator of the comic character Pepe the Frog who struggles to reclaim control of his creation after it’s re-purposed by political activists online.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup