That point in a relationship when you start thinking of ending things is when everything starts to feel a bit off. Where once you flowed, now you step on each other’s words. The rhythms become staccato. Someone responds a tad too sharply. An essential difference of opinion is revealed. You start becoming annoyed by little habits that aren’t really that annoying. No one thing by itself is a real difference maker, but the collection of them forms a wave of intention from which your mind can’t scramble back to its former state of contentment.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is like a feature-length dramatisation of that phenomenon. But because it’s a Charlie Kaufman film, that’s just one possible interpretation. Because it’s a Charlie Kaufman film, it’s a veritable kaleidoscope of possible interpretations. And Kaufman’s first film for Netflix is a Charlie Kaufman film through and through.
The raw materials on which these interpretations rest is a visit by a woman to meet her boyfriend’s parents at about the six-week mark of their relationship. That’s too early for Lucy (Jessie Buckley), who hasn’t even told her own parents that Jake (Jesse Plemons) exists. But Jake’s mind is already moving a lot further down the path, so they drive out in a snowstorm to his parents’ farm. From the start, Lucy is hyper aware of her own thoughts, which tell her that her feelings toward Jake are fatally shifting. Before they’re even halfway, she’s not sure she should be taking this trip because of its implied promise that they have more of a future than she believes.
Jake and Lucy are greeted by silence in the house, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Jake takes Lucy to meet the farm animals even before saying hello to his parents, even though they have seen them arrive. When they do finally descend the stairs, his mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis) are pretty eccentric in their interactions, she as though fighting to contain the crazy, he as though still suffering from the head wound that a fresh bandage covers. Or is this just Lucy’s interpretation of them? Or is it Jake’s?
You could answer every question with a question in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and that’s most assuredly how it should be. Kaufman excels in screenplays that tackle all of life’s greatest existential questions and sadnesses in one lucid enough narrative that somehow doesn’t explode apart at the seams, despite frequently bursting out of the normal narrative conventions. Ian Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name has given him the perfect source material on which to drape his chronic obsessions about time, regret, ageing, loneliness, and romantic relationships.
The visit to Jake’s parents’ house could be taken literally – whatever that may mean – as a kind of domestic horror akin to something like Darren Aronofsky’s mother! or David Lynch’s Eraserhead. At the extremely odd dinner in which Jake is becoming increasingly perturbed and Lucy increasingly chatty to plaster over the awkwardness, there’s no squirming chicken breast that extrudes black juice, but there might as well be. However, it’s also possible to understand these scenes, to understand the whole movie, as Lucy’s projection of the alienation a person feels once they have mentally disassociated from a partner, but not yet broken up with them.
The levels of interpretation, though, are many. The reality presented in this film, eccentric as it is, is never fixed. Events may be occurring out of sequence. Characters appear at different ages than they just were, sometimes played by different actors. Strange voices appear on voicemails left on mobile phones. We could name-drop Lynch again, but to suggest that Kaufman has been influenced by Lynch is to underappreciate just how unique and unlike anything else Kaufman’s voice is.
To sell material this delightfully bizarre, and really blackly funny when it wants to be, you need actors who are really committed. The Jess(i)es certainly comply. Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons keep us guessing with their various roles within this relationship, with how they will behave in the next moment. The script asks them to be consistently inconsistent, which is to say, they develop as clear characters, then go cascading off on tangents, as either their confused interpretation of each other, or of themselves. Buckley is a revelation as the viewer’s surrogate, a role she assumes by opening with a lengthy flow of narration. We can’t be sure if we can rely on what she’s telling us, though. Plemons is marvellously inscrutable, sort of recalling another Kaufman collaborator from Synecdoche, New York, that being the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Then of course you’ve got pros like Collette and Thewlis taking the weird and continuing to twist it.
Kaufman is continuing to excel on the technical side, an aspect of his filmmaking that didn’t necessarily follow from being the most intriguing screenwriter of the last two decades. His camera participates in the alienation of the characters from us and from each other, wandering ahead to spots in the frame where the characters have not yet appeared, or smash-cutting to askance angles on the scene we were just watching. Many of their conversations take place inside a moving car that’s buffeted by an unimaginable quantity of snow, leaving them further lost and cold and alone.
The more successful he has become, the less Kaufman has cared about being easily digestible. Synecdoche was what first drove a wedge between him and prospective financers, and he struggled to find the money for his follow-up, Anomalisa. We should be grateful that Netflix extended an outstretched hand to him, because meaty chunks of Kaufman’s philosophical ruminations, which are never tied up neatly with bows, are what we need. We don’t need them because they will necessarily help us figure out any of our own issues. We need them because first and foremost, cinema should make us think.