I’m thinking of reviewing things. Well, just one thing I guess, a new Netflix film called “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” that either requires a great deal of thinking, or maybe none at all.
I’m thinking it’s a film that defies simple classification. It’s a work with a tone that’s best conveyed by mentioning the other work of its director, Charlie Kaufman. Like Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Synecdoche, New York,” this adaptation of Iain Reid’s acclaimed novel takes a surreal approach to its analysis of the human condition. What’s it about? Well, it’s the simple story of a woman who goes to meet her new boyfriend’s parents on a snowy day that turns into a dangerous night because of the weather. But no Kaufman movie thrives on the surface.
The trip to a remote farmhouse is just the narrative skeleton on which Kaufman hangs arguably his most challenging film to date, a piece that verges on Lynchian in its surreal register, moving back and forth between reality and a dreamlike commentary on connection, although there may be even less of the former than it first appears. In a sense, all of Kaufman’s films have been about connection, but this one feels different in that it doesn’t have people pushing through this world in an effort to connect as much as realizing that they just can’t. There’s a line early in the film that haunted me throughout the next nearly two hours: “Other animals live in the present. Humans cannot. So they invented hope.” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is about human constructions like hope, happiness, connection, and even time. I’m thinking that description probably doesn’t help you.
I’m thinking I should start at the beginning. The great Jessie Buckley (“Wild Rose”) plays a woman whose name changes multiple times throughout the film. She may be Yvonne. She may be Lucy. She may not even be there? Over time, more aspects of her biography seem to shift and be rewritten, including her background and profession. She quotes poetry as if she wrote it and even lifts part of a Pauline Kael review wholesale when arguing a film’s quality. Whoever she is, she narrates the story and begins that narration, which is pretty loyal to the book, by repeating the title multiple times. What exactly she means by “ending” isn’t clear. Is it suicide? Or could it be another kind of ending? Maybe an ending to the way she sees the world? Maybe an ending to the way you do?
The opening scenes of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” feel relatively straightforward, but even there Kaufman peppers in disorienting film techniques. While the woman narrates the story, which at first seems to be blending both her inner monologue with what’s happening, the film cuts to a high school janitor who seems to have no connection to our young couple. Why? Does she know him? How is he involved?
A sense of anxiety over the trip begins to rise, amplified by a tight 4:3 aspect ratio courtesy of Lukasz Zal («Cold War») that forces the viewer to pay more attention to what’s in frame and even to consider what’s missing. Kaufman is playing with space and time before it’s even obvious. He regularly films scenes in the car between Jake and his girlfriend from the outside, blurring their faces with snow and filling the sound mix with wind. Something is just off as these people become less clear instead of more. Plemons and Buckley are both absolutely phenomenal here, finding relatable character beats within a script that would have stymied other performers, conveying a growing anxiety without resorting to cheap tricks to highlight it.