With his latest directorial oddity, Kaufman has crafted a superb fever-dream fairy tale of loneliness and love lost
Saturated by the twinge of regret, this simple question burns at the heart of Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant made-for-Netflix exclusive I’m Thinking of Ending Things – an enigmatic delve into the fraught relationship of Jake (Jesse Plemons) and a mysterious ‘Young Woman’ (Jessie Buckley) as they traverse the blizzardly terrain of some otherworldly countryside vista, en route to Jake’s parents’ secluded farmhouse for a spot of in-law mingling. As we’re introduced to the reflective voice-over musings of Buckley’s broody redhead, she begins to deliberate whether her new-fangled relationship is really all it’s cracked up to be, her repeated refrain becoming something of a cryptic double-entendre that forms the basis for this movie’s overarching thematic focus. Something is indeed ending here, and it might not just be this love story alone.
What seemingly begins as a straightforward, meet-the-parents style scenario quickly tailspins into avant-garde territory. Before long, we’re plunged into Eraserhead-esque family banquets, psychological horror, deadpan comedy, alternating timelines and a swathe of esoteric art culture references. All the while, the wearisome routine of an introverted janitor obsessed with Hollywood musicals is spliced in at sporadic intervals, his solitude achingly apparent as he mops and meanders his way through the corridors of a vacant, nondescript high-school. Err… yeah. So what does this all mean? What possible connection could these characters share? Part of this film’s charm lies its refusal to spoon-feed us any answers. Think, and ye shall find…
There’s plenty of bite to Kaufman’s domestic sequences, most of which play out like some nightmarish magnification of the worst family function you ever attended. Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal experiments with a boxy, 1:33:1 aspect ratio that harkens back to his collaborations with Pawel Palilkowski on Ida (2013) and Cold War (2018), bolstering the film’s stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere with arresting visual techniques that gives the actors little room to breathe or function. Kaufman undermines the absurdity of the family unit with droll unease – David Thewlis perfectly encapsulating Jake’s scatty, absent-minded father, whilst Toni Collette capitalises on her recent star-making turn in Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) with similarly unnerving results. Genre conventions are constantly upended as we’re treated to an adventurous mish-mash of horror and musical tropes that defy rhyme or reason, Kaufman refusing to subscribe to one consistent style. The result is neither messy nor jumbled: the film manages to gracefully balance its more disparate elements with elegance and ease. Of course, it should be noted that all of this outlandishness is brought to us by the man responsible for penning oddball masterworks like Being John Malkovich (1999) and Synecdoche, New York (2008) so any ‘normal’ narrative beats are expectedly abandoned in favour of something altogether more bizarre and unorthodox (and that’s just Jake’s unruffled monologues about frozen animal carcasses in his family’s out-back barn, or those abnormal scratch marks streaked across an off-limits, basement doorframe). But peel away these dense metaphorical layers and there’s something deeply moving and insightful here… even if Charlie defiantly refuses to throw us any bones.
You'd be right in thinking this all sounds totally wacky and inexplicable. Based on the famed psychological thriller by Iain Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a film that will inevitably polarise audiences. This is a movie that will have people losing their patience, their minds, and hopefully, their preconceptions. Those familiar with Charlie Kaufman’s previous work will undoubtedly be aware of his characteristic style: peculiarities are aplenty, nihilistic preoccupations with death permeate the story at every turn, dialogue is often ambiguous, characters’ identities are interchangeable, time is a malleable concept that runs forwards, backwards and every which way in-between. For those less receptive to such unconventional approaches to storytelling, these elements may prove frustrating, self-indulgent and even tedious. But for Kaufman aficionados and those with a penchant for the art-house, this is a thoroughly rewarding ride that pays off magically in its final act, where an elegant Lynch-meets-La La Land style set-piece had this writer crying buckets.
In recent years, Kaufman has been kryptonite for a variety of studios. His last two outings failed to breakeven: the brilliantly philosophical Synecdoche, New York (2008) made a mere $4.5 million from an estimated $20 million budget, and stop-motion animation Anomalisa (2015) lost a costly $2.3 million at the box-office. Favouring the authorial control that Netflix have recently afforded directors like Duncan Jones, Kaufman has taken these financial losses in his stride, transforming them into hard-earned artistic gains and precisely the kind of film he wanted to make. The result is bold, audacious and completely brilliant. Elevated by Jay Wadley’s enchanting orchestral score, there is a sense of brilliance here: one that ultimately transcends the films oddities and, in the end, amounts to something heartbreakingly true and quintessentially human. Many will point to Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003) as a more viable, worthwhile companion piece, but make no mistake – this is an excellent addition to the Kaufman canon.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is available for streaming on Netflix