I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the latest work from filmmaker Charlie Kaufman adapted from Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, is a difficult film to write about. As the screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and writer-director of Synecdoche, New York, and Anomalisa, Kaufman’s has always been a singular voice, and processing his work requires similar singularity from critics. His latest, though, is particularly tricky because it cannot be experienced the same way twice. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a puzzle; the first time through, it feels as if the pieces have been scattered to the wind, and only once you know how they fit together can you see that the placement of each was masterfully precise. To stand at the end of the road and convince you to follow without giving the game away takes all the strength I have.
The movie’s premise seems simple enough at first glance: boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) drives his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) into the countryside to meet his parents (Toni Collette & David Thewlis) while she builds up the courage to end the relationship. From the outset, however, the young woman (whose thoughts we hear like narration) feels that something is off, and what began as the occasional odd moment snowballs into a full-on rupturing of reality once they reach Jake’s childhood home. Struggling to piece things together, she insists they drive back into town instead of staying the night, but as the world around her continues to deteriorate, she starts to worry they’ll never make it back at all.
To describe I’m Thinking of Ending Things is to admit there is no easy way to package the experience in familiar terms. My synopsis makes it sound like a horror movie, but you’ve never seen a horror movie with this much talking. The viewing experience is often surreal, but the film is more cypher than enigma, in that the creative choices are explicable rather than just open for interpretation. Its story is a mystery, but the script doesn’t build to a climax where everything clicks into place, forcing you to do the connective legwork yourself. It counterintuitively becomes more thrilling after you finish watching than while it was on, and the scenes that are somewhat punishing to watch in the moment (from an entertainment perspective) become those you obsessively revisit for days afterwards.
Its releasing on Netflix allows you to indulge that last compulsion to your heart’s content, but getting the most out of I’m Thinking of Ending Things requires your close attention, something not always associated with the home viewing experience. More than enough clues are sprinkled throughout to grasp the grand design— the only hint I can give is that it’s deeply intertextual, and no piece of culture that gets referenced is inconsequential. Don’t get me wrong, though, this film is not solely a cerebral exercise. Viewers who prefer not to overthink their cinema will find plenty to appreciate in the excellent performances, insightful dialogue, and haunting imagery, and it’s as devastating a portrait of human loneliness as Kaufman has ever done. But do yourself a favor and overthink this one. Every aspect of the filmmaking becomes infinitely richer the more you dwell on it.
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