Have you ever met someone you immediately connected with and felt entirely yourself around? Did it all seem too good to be true that you began to question everything around you and before you knew it, your future with this person was plunged into overwhelming doubt? That sinking feeling takes hold and before you could voice your concerns, you find yourself in far too deep to turn back. It’s this relatable sensation that forms the basis for Charlie Kaufman’s newest thriller I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Based upon the 2016 novel of the same name by Iain Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things opens with a familiar set-up. An unnamed woman (Jessie Buckley) joins her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons) – who she is thinking of breaking up with – as he travels to see his parents in a secluded country farmhouse. What begins as a (somewhat) normal ‘the new girlfriend meets the parents’ situation quickly begins to morph into something else entirely, something far more sinister and heartbreaking.
The initial car journey to the parents’ house, which lasts just shy of 23 minutes, showcases once again how Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter of Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) has become a truly phenomenal director in recent years. It is a simple but powerful setup, existing entirely within the confines of Jake’s moving car, that quickly establishes what this relationship has become over a short amount of time and why this unnamed female feels immense uncertainty about her future with Jake.
Much of this car journey is spent highlighting the woman’s justifications for feeling how she does as her narration discusses the past, the present and the possible future (or lack of it). Very quickly Kaufman establishes this young couple are not a strong match as all too regularly Jake will interrupt his girlfriend’s thoughts – delivered in voiceover – with conversation that verges on possessive, mundane and unfulfilling. Kaufman uses this constant interruption as a tool to immediately consolidate the heroine’s frustrations and the harsh reality that these two ‘perfectly’ matched lovers are anything but.
Discussions of Leo Tolstoy, Leonid Brezhnev and Benito Mussolini are interwoven with uneasy conversation that culminates in the reciting of an angry and sad poem by our female lead, one Jake believes feels almost like it was written about him. The whole introduction is extremely well-crafted, a cautionary discussion on the human psyche and life that hints there is much more to this set-up than initially meets the eye – something Kaufman suggests to terrifying effect. It is extremely effective filmmaking that pushes the female lead’s frustration upon the viewer. You feel her uncertainty and fears. It is a masterful opening that stressfully leads audiences to the infamous farmhouse.
Upon arriving at Jake’s parents’ home, proceedings grow even more uneasy, with an atmosphere brewing that is eerie yet forceful. Jake’s mother is played by the superb Toni Collette, once again channeling her inner weirdness – echoing her fantastic performance in Hereditary. Meanwhile, Jake’s father, played by David Thewlis, is skeptical and frighteningly observant. It becomes clear very quickly something is wrong. It isn’t long before Jake’s girlfriend realises this as reality starts to come apart at the seams, further hinting that Kaufman’s tale may not be what we first expected.
The cast here are incredible with both Collette and Thewlis really shining. As reality begins to blur, the two veterans embrace the avant-garde to the fullest, providing truly chilling performances that would be welcomed in any David Lynch or David Cronenberg flick. Plemons as Jake is maybe the best he has ever been on camera and is further proof he is one of the most promising actors of his generation.
Ireland’s own Jessie Buckley’s performance, meanwhile, as Jake’s girlfriend is flawless. She oozes confidence throughout, even when her character is confronted with some truly emotional, heartbreaking moments, as well as some audacious bizarre scenes. Even the somewhat underused but just as important lonely janitor played by Guy Boyd – who the film keeps cutting back to – provides a truly heartbreaking picture of misery and failure by the movie’s conclusion. Each of the main cast has clearly devoted themselves to Kaufman’s twisted vision of Reid’s novel and it is an absolute joy to behold.
Kaufman’s work behind the camera is a breath of fresh air, particularly when compared to the standard template used by most thrillers in recent years. Feeling somewhat similar in style to his critically acclaimed directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s reliance on long takes – giving his characters room to breathe and express themselves openly and confidently – helps to build both their personalities and the environments they inhabit. Meanwhile, his use of panning shots – where the camera acts almost like an onlooking presence hiding in the background – are deployed with an artistic flair rarely seen in thrillers nowadays. Even his direction of the lengthy dream-like ballet sequence towards the increasingly dreamlike finale is a beautifully choreographed sequence that once again proves Kaufman’s striking ability behind the camera.
Unfortunately, where Kaufman’s thriller may lose some of its audience is with its overall presentation, pacing (the film clocks in at just over 130 minutes) and narrative. Kaufman’s careful languorous approach to the story refuses to give away too much too early. Yet, one imagines this could drive many closer to the ‘stop’ button on their remote than intended.
Couple that with the discernible understanding that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an artistic, cerebral experience and that, unlike in Reid’s novel, Kaufman refuses to give viewers an immediately definable ending or resolution to this strange piece of genre filmmaking, the movie could prove to much for most. That said, the director deserves praise for how his latest is essentially a broad deconstruction of Hollywood filmmaking norms as opposed to the typical finite and predictable thriller.
By its conclusion, I’m Thinking of Ending Things winds up far removed from its initial premise. It mutates into a far deeper cinematic experience rooted in academic failure, lost potential, memories of sorrow and the unfortunate grievance of simply what could have been. It is sad and poetic although simply not for everyone.
But if you can identify with Kaufman and ultimately Reid’s message, you will be sure to find one of the most rewarding thrillers of the last few years and particularly of 2020. Also, all throughout Kaufman’s movie, hints and answers are everywhere to be found – because it’s on Netflix, a simple pause of your TV remote could come in useful in this respect, particularly when in Jake’s parents’ farmhouse. For those obsessed with decoding the movie’s many mysteries, it’s very possible that on second viewing, I’m Thinking of Ending Things could be an even more satisfying viewing experience. That said, even seeing it once I’m confident in saying it’s an incredible achievement, another terrific addition to Charlie Kaufman’s already flourishing CV.