A young woman (Jessie Buckley)—whose name we never know—accompanies her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents. Her voice over—which sometimes doesn’t play so privately—narrates as a stream of consciousness. Everything about Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things—from the opening credits’ microscopic font to the disintegration of familiar storytelling methods—is proudly inaccessible.
The film’s dark, cool tones intimates the nagging, creeping, nighttime fear of oblivion: whether from mental or corporeal aging. The film’s mood is loneliness. And life’s modus operandi is to end. Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things—based upon Iain Reid’s existential novel of the same name—is as brilliantly immersive as it is enigmatically unnerving.
Thematically and visually—it’s a recounting of a relationship running on its last gasps—I’m Thinking of Ending Things mirrors the Kaufman-written Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind. Though the couple begin their drive to Jake’s parents in high spirits, their time in the car soon devolves into large spaces of silence. Jake, at moments hapless, tries his best to make “light” conversation about Wordsworth; Mussolini’s Train; suicide bomber ants; stopping for coffee; and the weather. The road they’re driving on is snowy, their windows murky, and a blizzard is oncoming. In fact, the wintry setting reminds one of the beach house scene from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’m Thinking of Ending Things reads on the same tragic page of losing the one you love.
Kaufman’s script is incredibly erudite, tossing between the origin of ideas and how they form us. For instance, while in the car, the young woman recites the poem “Bonedog,” while claiming the composition as her own. We later discover its origins stem from the book Rotten Perfect Mouth by Eva H. D. The misappropriation of words, criticism, and art runs rampant among the characters. Moreover, the pair—both well-educated—though the details of their schooling changes like the wind howling outside of Jake’s parents’ place—make references to Guy Debord; Anna Kavan; David Foster Wallace; Tolstoy; and other intellectuals. Human personality, at its basest form, is composed of the half-learned nuggets of the information we pick-up throughout our lives. Kaufman translates that truth into two people who never really know themselves, apart from each other.
When the couple arrive, the young woman finds that everything on the farm is concluding or concluded. The bodies of dead lambs lay outside the barn, unburied, in the snow. Jake tells the frightened young woman how the sheep bodies can wait until the spring to be burned, essentially explaining how the deceased animals’ carcasses are physically frozen, and metaphorically suspended in time. Dead pigs—whose passing are painfully haunting—are “memorialized” by a black spot on the ground of their former pen. Jake’s parents, like the animals, are also in a state of decline.
His mother (Toni Collette, at the height of off-kilter motherdon) dotes on her son. His father (David Thewlis) does the same. During dinner, Jake sometimes steams due to their modest education. Collette’s laughter, her wheezing, and her strained smile which would shatter to the floor if someone threw a pebble, at once exposes the insecurity of her character, yet her unbridled gaiety. Thewlis, who purposely operates at half-speed, adds a deadpan comedic flair. Plemons’ nonverbal acting throughout the dinner, playing a steady straight man, is perfect.
Without revealing too much, from dinner on, each character’s respective reality begins to crumble. The final two acts imitates the entire second half of Kaufman’s directorial debut—the equally mesmerizing—Synecdoche, New York. Their ages shift, as do the details of their lives. For instance, the young woman initially claims to have been raised in a farmhouse but switches to saying she grew up in an apartment. Buckley absolutely consumes every scene. Her cocked Mona Lisa smile intuits her sly sense of humor.
Time and dementia weather the mom and dad, and much like Natalie Erika James’ Relic, their house mirrors the untangling of mind and memory, each room an opening to a sadder reality. It’s a brilliant display of set decoration; with each book and painting adding a new question mark to a character. Robert Frazen’s editing strings these disparate scenes into cohesion. Buckley also shoulders the load. She holds the twisting, ever-terraforming narrative at its dire emotional center: veering between an array of frightening and ruminative expressions in the face of the ever-approaching end.
In the background of the dinner, is a mysterious subplot involving an old disheveled janitor at a school. His scenes are isolated, and his connection to Jake and the young woman remain puzzling until the end. Without spoiling much, a zinger referencing Robert Zemeckis made me howl. There’s also a tongue-biting scene involving Plemons—an actor with a history of oddball moments, as evident in Game Night—singing the “Tulsey Town” theme, which might as well serve as a nightmare ode to Willy Wonka & Chocolate Factory. Later, Buckley spoofs Pauline Kael to an uncanny effect. For a confounding and melancholy story, these surreal punchlines make holes for the brain to breathe.
The final sequence—which features a dream ballet that made me long for An American in Paris; also has a scene where Plemons sings a show tune from Oklahoma!; and another with an animated pig prancing down a hallway—takes place in Jake’s former high school. The ending adds a genre-bending climax to the already delusional; hallucinatory; bewitching series of barely connected events. They fully actualize the tricks our brains play in our sleep and the ruse which springs toward our eyes in the light. Even when youth’s brightness dies.
Upon the film’s opening, in a voice over spoken amid a montage of still-lifes, showing the farmhouse’s rooms, the young woman explains the trip she’s taken with Jake to his parents’ home. In later scenes, she continually reminds Jake that she has to leave. But even when the pair do depart, they still feel trapped. It’s the inescapability of not just the home, but the unavoidable truths that relationships, life and memory all end, that turn the story’s spokes. Do they leave? Do they stay? Are we ever doing one or the other in life? The answers are perceptible but to fully grasp would destroy us. His least accessible film in some ways, but his most universally affecting in others, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Kaufman’s most advanced directorial work to date.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things premieres on Netflix September 4, 2020