If someone were to say Charlie Kaufman makes films that challenge audiences, it would be a vast understatement. Even his most general audience-friendly film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a complex thinker that kept viewers discovering new nuances even after multiple viewings. He certainly does not create mindless popcorn pleasers.
I Am Thinking of Ending Things, stays true to the Charlie Kaufman brand. He does not hold back turning what initially looks like an odd date film into a challenging, nightmarish, and, at times, deeply moving film. Kaufman tangles the concepts of identity, existence, and loneliness, keeping us off balance as he delivers a cerebral and mesmerizing achievement.
The film begins with a young couple Jake (Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad, Fargo) and a Young Woman (Jessie Buckley Wild Rose, Judy) on a road trip to have their first meeting with his Mother and Father (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). The nameless young woman serves as our narrator, giving us a peek at the confused and conflicted thoughts inside her head. (Trust me, she is not alone). While she is unsure about much, she has one very clear thought echoing periodically throughout the film, the idea, “I’m thinking about ending things.” Words not only heard by the viewer, but they also may (or may not) have been heard by Jake.
The snowy car ride is a long and uncomfortable, revealing the relationship between the two is anything but perfect. When they arrive at his parents’ home the level of oddity is ramped up considerably as we too start to question who are these people with whom we are spending time. A glum tone is set and is barely lifted during the entire 134-minute runtime. Kaufman has us tag along on a surreal ride full of twists and turns, an enigma whose answers are all there even if it may take some readjusting to see them.
I will not dive deep into details about where the film takes you or my theories (we’ll save those for the podcast) because it would ruin the exploratory experience. Honestly, my advice to you would be to stop reading now, go watch the film (exclusively on Netflix for those of you leaving now), and return to reading after you have. There is plenty to analyze and is never mindless eccentricity for the sake of oddness. I personally watched it twice before it really worked for me, and then again.
After repeat viewings is when the mastery of Kaufman’s script, which is based on the book of the same name by Iain Reid, took hold of me. Initially, it is overwhelming as the dialogue twists upon itself creating knots that do not seem to loosen for a moment. Poetic, frantic, reflective, and unhinging all at the same time while remaining deliberate. It all makes logical sense before betraying your judgment. Every time we start to feel comfortable Kaufman throws in a song and dance number or another seemingly out of left field moment. There is a definite turn of the century David Lynchvibe going on here.
Kaufman leans heavily the aesthetics to breathe unspoken meaning into each scene. The already claustrophobic setting of the endless car ride and an awkward dinner party becomes even more suffocating when framed in a tight 4:3 aspect ratio (the more square look of older televisions). Together, Kaufman and cinematographer Łukasz Żal (Cold War) also make a statement through color.
In the film’s opening moments we are presented a dreamlike and sequence with Buckley catching the ethereal falling snowflakes on her tongue. She is a vision. Her red hair is ablaze, complemented by the striking gold and orange hues of her outfit which pops off the screen set against the desaturated pastel colors of a small town USA main street. It is one of my favorite shots of the year. The moment is full of hope and calm, a feeling not present anywhere else in the film, especially in the dulled color palette and gloomy lighting. As Buckley mentions in the film, “Color is the deeds of light. It’s the deeds and suffering.”
The camerawork is intelligent and intimate, subtlety taking us inside the feelings and minds of characters here gracefully. We are trapped in a relentless car ride where the camera purposely jumps from speaker to speaker, from inside the car to an outside perspective. We must peer through the frost-covered window surrounded with nasty, cold conditions to capture a character knowingly breaking through the fourth wall, with a glance at the camera, or an eye roll only we are meant to see. Just as much is being said with the camera and Jay Wadley‘s ever-shifting score as with the dialogue.
The performances here are wild, subdued, and poignant. Jessie Buckley is remarkable as she makes philosophical observations in an almost confessional inner voice, wrestling with her current situation. At the same time, she delivers a much different version of her character when engaging with the other characters. Plemons channels a deeper sadness where his pensive eyes seem to be pondering the nature of his reality then occasionally breaking into song. Collette with her manic giggling and Thewlis oppressive mannerisms both provided multifaceted performances that could be stretched into an entire film if so pleased. And, Guy Boyd as the janitor is sullen, broken, and mysterious.
All of this culminates in a moving and maddening film which does not waste a frame when tackling concepts both wildly complex and common at the same time. Kaufman amazes me here on just about every turn here. And while I don’t think I quite grasp every ounce of symbolism crammed into this contemplative film, I do look forward to watching it again to examine it further.
Anyone considering viewing must realize I’m Thinking of Ending Things is in no way a casual watch. Nor is it a particularly fun watch. It teeters on the edge of madness at all times, feeling like it a full-on thriller could break out at any minute without missing a beat. I omitted the majority of the numerous WTF moments in my review – they are best experienced in the raw. These moments and the film as a whole will certainly divide audiences. But, if you are patient, put down your phone, are willing to be confused (a lot) and give your full attention to Kaufman’s craft, as dark and twisted as it can be, the film is a thought-provoking, existential exploration of life, love and much more.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is streaming exclusively on Netflix.