The following is a review of I’m Thinking of Ending Things — Directed by Charlie Kaufman.
Charlie Kaufman is perhaps an acquired taste. I know for sure that there are people who struggle to get on the same wavelength as the writer-director, and I also know that this film, in particular, is difficult for some people to vibe with, understand, or even sit through. The Oscar-winning screenwriter turned to directing in 2008 and, though he is somewhat of a critical darling, his films have since struggled to find financial success. Kaufman’s latest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is an ambiguous and patience-testing unconventional psychological thriller, and it will likely lead to both mixed reactions and — since it is a Netflix film — incomplete viewings. But if you know what to expect with Kaufman, and if you stick with the film, you will be treated to a fascinating and uneasy Rohrshach test in the form of a 134-minute-long straight-to-Netflix feature film.
Kaufman’s latest film is an adaptation of the Iain Reid novel of the same name. Superficially, his film concerns a young woman, Lucy (played by Jessie Buckley), and her boyfriend, Jake (played by Jesse Plemons), who are on their way to meet Jake’s parents (played by David Thewlis and Toni Collette). Lucy, however, is reconsidering her relationship with Jake, and, on their way to the family farm, she keeps on thinking that perhaps she ought to ‘end things.’ Meanwhile, we catch small glimpses of an elderly janitor from a local high school. As details change and people act strangely, Lucy becomes increasingly anxious and unsure of what she is actually experiencing.
But, of course, there is much more to it than that. As I have already stated, I look at the film almost like a Rorschach test due to Kaufman’s unique and ambiguous storytelling. From my point of view, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an incredibly sad film about both the merging of your identity and the culture you consume, as well as about a dejected individual whose mind is deteriorating perhaps due to the passing of time and the many regrets that appear to have taken a toll. Based on my reading of the film, a character appears to live vicariously through the people around him or her, as well as through the culture this person consumes. The film is littered with references to films, filmmakers, artists, art, literature, and even a certain film critic, but the quote that informs my reading of the film is the scene in which the main character quotes Oscar Wilde and says: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it’s not always about what the movie is about, but rather ‘how it is about it.’ Kaufman has crafted a labyrinthine and cerebral film that is uneasy from start to finish and which goes places that few could predict. From time to time, important details will change, characters will age or de-age rapidly from scene to scene, the film will cross-cut between the janitor and the main characters at peculiar moments, and sometimes you may even think that an actor has been switched out for a single shot. In the blink of an eye, you may miss one of the many tension and anxiety-building changes that add to the film’s surreal and uneasy tone. You never quite know what to expect in this film, and I think Kaufman succeeds in making this film feel like a true psychological horror film through extended periods of the film. It’s also oddly comical in moments. One of the film’s more memorable and odd sequences features a shout-out, of sorts, to a certain popular film director that is so unexpected that you don’t really know if it’s right to laugh. After all, this is an unconventional and perhaps esoteric filmmaker poking fun at a commercial and popular director for no reason in particular.
The film is deliberately paced, and, during large sections of the film, we spend several minutes with Lucy and Jake while they are driving towards, and away from, Jake’s family home. During these scenes, Lucy and Jake’s dialogue feels more like stream-of-consciousness thoughts that cover a multitude of topics, and sometimes it even feels like Jake and Lucy can hear each other’s thoughts. These sections, which also showcase an appropriately, and likely intentional, awkward chemistry between Plemons and Buckley’s characters, can also be quite trying, however, and I’m sure the opening twenty minutes will be difficult for some viewers to endure. Towards the end of the film, Kaufman even experiments with both animation and musical sequences that, though admirable, will also test viewers.
Jesse Plemons delivers a solid performance as Jake, though admittedly his performance is not as attention-grabbing as the other pivotal actors’. Jessie Buckley is quite impressive as Lucy, whose name keeps changing as the film goes on, and I was particularly fascinated by what I interpreted as a Pauline Kael-impression. David Thewlis and Toni Collette, however, give the loudest and most memorable performances in the film. These last few years, Toni Collette has received critical acclaim for her performances, and this is another memorable performance from her, but Thewlis is equally good and deserves a lot of credit. He’s an actor who I don’t think gets as much recognition as he deserves, but this film should put him on more people’s radar.
Many people will struggle to decipher this dense and labyrinthine film, and I actually saw the film with someone who appeared to think that the film was impenetrable. But I have to say that the latest addition to Charlie Kaufman’s oeuvre — I’m Thinking of Ending Things — really connected with me as a bleak, cerebral, and disconcerting psychological horror film about the passing of time, your relationship with culture, and the big regrets in life.
8.5 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.