From the moment I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ title comes up on the screen, writer-director Charlie Kaufman intends to make you work for it.
The font size is so small that even on a 60-inch screen, you have to lean forward to read it. Kaufman has immediately engaged you in his off-centred world, and he’s not letting go until well after the end.
If you’re familiar with Kaufman’s previous work – he wrote the screenplays for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich and was the writer-director of Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa – then you have a sense of the kind of hallucinatory narrative journey he’s laid out.
If you’re not, well, what a trip you’re about to have.
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The simple synopsis is that there’s a young woman (Jessie Buckley) accompanying her relatively new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons) on a road trip to his parents’ (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) farmhouse.
She’s not sure if she should even be there, thinking she should break things off with him. We’re told this through voiceover of her internal monologue – and Kaufman has never met an internal monologue he didn’t like.
But nothing is ever simple with Kaufman, even though I’m Thinking of Ending Things is adapted from a book by Iain Reid.
Kaufman extends Reid’s narrative displacement with a story that is at most times, unsettling and unknowable – much like Buckley’s unnamed character whose biographical details morph repeatedly. Is she an artist, a physicist, a gerontologist or a waitress?
Maybe she’s all of these things and none of these things.
Kaufman’s stories are sheathed in mystery, but it’s not a puzzle for you to work out. Things will be revealed when they are revealed, and Kaufman builds and sustains that carefully calibrated momentum with mastery.
When it’s all over, you’ll want to mull it over and then rewatch I’m Thinking of Ending Things, appreciating every detail that now has a different meaning.
There are long dialogue scenes in the car in which the films of John Cassavetes or the words of David Foster Wallace are parsed. The choice to frame those from outside the vehicle as snow drift surrounds them makes more sense afterwards – it’s both a cinematic choice and a metaphysical one.
Buckley’s and Plemmons’ performances also take on a different dimension once you know what you know. It’s a testament to both that their talent and command of nuance that those performances work in the moment and then in retrospect.
You know things aren’t what they seem as soon as Buckley’s character arrives at Jake’s childhood home. There’s a constant sense of dread as she’s taken on a tour around the house with its fading vintage wallpaper whose patterns almost indiscernibly shift from one scene to the next.
There’s a dog that doesn’t stop shaking and then there are his parents who appear to be in their 60s on the staircase, but more youthful in the dining room.
Conversations are awkward and tense one moment, and easy and warm the next without the transitional moments in between.
That sense of shifting sand underfoot, of perpetual unease is trademark Kaufman, and it opens you up to an experience in which everything is questioned and the fact that you don’t have immediate answers doesn’t frustrate.
Of course, all these stylistic decisions would be for nought if Kaufman didn’t also have the emotional and cerebral goods to back it up.
To be more specific would be to tip the film’s hand, but let’s just say that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is interested in ideas and emotions as grand as loneliness, human frailty and hope in the face of inevitable death.
Those are some heady things to think about.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is streaming now on Netflix
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