There’s an aching awkwardness that throbs violently in the latest film from Charlie Kaufman. The screenwriter (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) turned writer-director (Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa) has made such social agony a part of his brand. It’s often paired with an esoteric application of genre movie tropes to plots that center around self-loathing anti-heroes whose greatest struggles are internal. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, elements of time-loop horror bleed into his brand to offer a film that is equal parts mind-bending and melancholic.
Adapted from Iain Reid’s debut novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things centers on an unnamed young woman (Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley), who is traveling with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Sitting in silence during a long, long car ride into rural terrain, the Young Woman (as she’s credited) wonders if she should break it off with her beau. Through voiceover we are given access to her innermost thoughts. However, she speaks as if she knows she has an audience. Instead of saying to herself, “Maybe I should end things,” she says, “I’m thinking of ending things,” as if she’s floating the idea by a friend over coffee.
Tension is wrung from the revelation that she’s uncertain of her future with this glum young man, while each moment they are closer and closer to taking that “next step” that is meeting the parents. There’s a caustic chemistry brewing between the two. They speak in the jolting rhythms of a relationship out of sync, as if they are talking at each other instead of with each other. Things only get tenser when they arrive at the house, where the cold exterior is contrasted sharply by Jake’s mother’s over-eagerness to please.
Between Hereditary and Knives Out, you may instinctively bristle as Toni Collette bounds down the stairs. With two powerful performances, she has become a signifier of unhappy homes steeped in sinister secrets. Her pained giggle stings, as do her eyes, which are popping wide in attentiveness to the brink of hysteria. Thewlis , as the doddering dad, can’t seem to keep pace with the conversation, and asks questions that creep toward rudeness. In response to both, Buckley becomes a spinning top of performative joy and patience, fiercely appeasing one parent then the other. All the while, Jake sits and stews.
The night will only grow stranger. Time snaps and stretches, reflecting the torturous trap not only of this trip, but also of the rut the Young Woman fears a life with Jake would be. In the blink of an eye, dessert is done and his father is decades older, gray and hunched. Then snap! Jake’s mother is years younger, sporting a Donna Reed-like look, with A-line skirt, meticulously groomed hair, and heels. The family dog appears, only to get stuck in a loop of shaking off the cold. And their guest becomes increasingly frantic to leave, but even exiting the house will not be an escape for the Young Woman. Back in the car, the tension that something terrible will happen begins to ease, but the sense that something terrible has happened grows as the Young Woman’s journey becomes increasingly surreal.
Personally, I’ve never connected deeply to the existential agony of Kaufman’s narratives. However, here I empathized with the plight of his harried heroes. In the midst of this pandemic, it’s perhaps easy to relate to characters that are trapped in a rut they are powerless to escape, whose rhythms – however familiar – feel strange as time crawls and races cruelly. Still, there’s much much more within I’m Thinking of Ending Things to process. The plot itself might demand a rewatch to get that ending to click. (Familiarity with the novel would be a help too, though Kaufman’s translation is not so literal.) But if you’re trying to figure out how the time travel works, you’re probably missing the point; this isn’t Tenet, after all.
Kaufman has offered a film filled to the brim with symbolism, intrigue, and words, words, words. The characters explode in fits of emotion and bursts of monologues, frequently contradicting what they’ve said before. Like the recently released (and extraordinary) biopic Tesla, this film is not so much about what’s happening as how its happening felt. The sting of loneliness is expressed in the howl of a merciless wind and the vacant expression of a pair of dead sheep frozen solid. The thundering relentlessness of intrusive thoughts is underlined by voiceover that contains an echo, as if bouncing around the farmhouse’s stairwell in real time. Potential terror is teased with diegetic radio music that zings to suspenseful strings when dreaded mention is made of “the basement.”
Kaufman is taking us inside the mind of his character, and the experience is purposefully jarring, littered with conflicting memories, tangential ponderings, and an aching obsession over what could have been. All of this is seeped in a profound desolation that threatens to consume its hero and us, its audience, whole and helpless. Which is all to say, it might be Kaufman’s masterpiece.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” debuts Friday on Netflix.