You would think that major movies premiering on platforms like Netflix would encourage me to see movies even quicker than I do when they’re in theaters but in a lot fo ways it’s had the opposite effect. Partly that’s an absence of FOMO. I know it’s always just going to be sitting there waiting for me to hit play at will so I don’t feel any kind of pressure to rush things or even to plan ahead as to what day I’m going to watch something. But even more than that it’s just a matter of making sure I have an evening available when I’m going to be as free of distractions as possible. That went double for the new Charlie Kaufman movie that premiered on Netflix almost a month ago, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I knew from how challenging Kaufman’s previous films were that they were not works to be taken on lightly, what’s more… the damn thing was called “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which pretty clearly marks that this wasn’t exactly going to be a cheery piece of work and that it would need to be something I would need to watch with a certain clear mindset that the year 2020 has not necessarily been providing all the time. Still, I knew this would be an interesting and challenging movie I should see and assess so I finally found the right evening and gave the film a watch.
The film begins with a woman of about thirty (Jessie Buckley) in a car with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) driving in a snowy rural area somewhere in the Northeast or Midwest. The two apparently haven’t been a couple for too long and seem to some from some kind of academic background as the woman seems to have some kind of grad school class to get back to and the two are prone to trade literary references and the like. They are apparently going on an outing to visit Jake’s parents at their farm home, which we learn from a voiceover the woman is conflicted about because she’s come to be rather disillusioned by this relationship and as the title says she’s thinking of ending things with him. Eventually they get to the farm and meet his mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis), who are somewhat awkward and embarrassing in their own parental sort of way. But as the visit goes on people start behaving increasingly strange and what’s real in this situation becomes increasingly unclear.
All of Charlie Kaufman’s films are a bit strange but they’ve only become more challenging over time. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were all sorts of weird but they were weird in ways that announced themselves pretty quickly and audiences were generally in on the game from the beginning and any other flights of fancy just felt like odd gravy on top. Once Kaufman started directing his own film with 2008’s Synecdoche, New York his films started to grow more symbolic and harder to really grasp and that’s particularly true about this film, which abandon’s a lot of the comedy of Kaufman’s earlier films in favor of a certain sense of dread and confusion. I’ve seen people describe it as a straight-up horror movie, which I don’t think is accurate but it is playing with certain film language that wouldn’t be completely out of place in one. In fact the film in many ways reminded me a lot of the work of David Lynch in its willingness to be a sort of dive into the subconscious with no interest in explaining itself while being set against a modern American landscape.
This is not a movie that I can say I fully understand so this review is going to be less of an in depth analysis and more of just a reaction to what I watched and what I think about it. Visually I certainly found a lot to like about the film. That scene in the car at the beginning is like a masterclass in gloomy atmosphere and pretty accurately captures that feeling of driving through a light snowfall and uses the occasional swoosh of the wipers as a sort of slow metronome in the background. Plemons and Buckley are well chosen as a rather non-glamourous couple to put at the center of this thing and putting them in heavy jackets for this car ride conversation is a good way to subtly suggest the distance between the two of them. It’s a scene reminiscent of similar “car conversations” at the opening of Before Midnight and Certified Copy and it kind of suggests that this will primarily be a deep dive into this relationship but that is a bit of a fake out. As the movie goes on it starts to seem like a movie about them and more like a movie specifically about her… until it stops being a movie about her and starts to be something else entirely.
In the third act things start to get really weird in a way that a lot of people are not going to have even a little bit of patience for and I must say it really weirded me out in a bad way at first but looking back on it I do think I know what was basically going on with most of that and with the movie in general though I won’t be going through it in spoilerific detail. Put it all together and the movie is impressive though I must say that that doesn’t automatically make it a completely compelling viewing experience in retrospect and not every part completely works for me even if I sort of see how it fits. Though there’s a lot I like about this I do wish that Charlie Kaufman could lighten up a bit because his last couple movies have been awfully depressive and cryptic and his movies as a director have felt less like brainy fun and more like difficult therapy sessions. But difficult therapy is sometimes what you need and when it’s conducted with this much skill I think it’s worth it if you’re in the right mood.
***1/2 out of Five