‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Review: Kaufman’s Most Straight-Forward Descent into Madness

Kaufman's latest is never less than enthralling but in the end not much more than that either.

Netflix

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, directed by Charlie Kaufman and adapted from the book of the same name, is yet another example of the writer-director’s strongest and weakest storytelling traits. Kaufman regularly mixes the harrowing idea of depersonalization with the comparatively minuscule elements of human relationships. Audiences walk away from his works having maybe not fully understood them but likely having felt them. Like his other films, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is overlong and slightly meandering, with occasional moments of brilliance overshadowed only by its eye-rolling knowledge that it is, in fact, occasionally brilliant. It is never less than enthralling, but never much more than that, either.

As Cindy (Jessie Buckley) rides in her boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) car, she repeatedly returns to the fact that she doesn’t really like him. Their conversation is stilted and shallow, only becoming involved when they talk about art or her career. When they arrive at Jake’s childhood home, there seems to be an uneasy melancholy everywhere. Jake’s mother, Suzie (Toni Collette), switches between being maniacally inviting and emotionally fragile. Jake’s father, Dean (David Thewlis), shifts from warm conversation to cold judgment. Every room that Cindy explores in Jake’s parents’ house seems to change, like something out of a dream. Photos on the wall look both foreign and familiar. There is a sinister element that Cindy can’t quite figure out. As the heavy snow continues to fall outside, Cindy just wants to get out of the house and her relationship.

Like all of Charlie Kaufman’s work, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a delightful mess. His works tend to blur the line between drama, comedy, and a dry sense of psychological horror in a way that makes them more of a Rorschach test than a film. Some viewers attach themselves to his work, finding either a deep connection to the material or at least the emotions the material pushes against. In a lot of ways, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Kaufman’s most accessible film as a director after 2008’s Synecdoche, New York and 2015’s Anomalisa. For all its shifting plot and uneasiness, Kaufman seems to want audiences to understand the inner-machinations of the story more than in his other two films. I’m Thinking of Ending Things feels very much like a stage play. The acting and direction seem to be projecting loudly toward the balcony, trying to find steady footing between subtlety and delicacy. But saying that any of Kaufman’s work is “most accessible” is like saying “the easiest marathon.” Half of the fun of I’m Thinking of Ending Things will be in seeing the reactions of Netflix users who just finished Tall Girl 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold and are pulled out of the movie playing in the background while they are on their phone only to begin promptly drowning in Kaufman’s world.

The performances continue with the “stage play” nature of the film. Colette plays the mother role with almost a community-theater level of theatrics. Thewlis masks himself in a thick mumbled accent that is equal parts inviting and intimidating. It feels that both performances don’t belong in this film, as they don’t match the subtlety of what Kaufman is trying to achieve. Their aggressive qualities (she constantly tries to be hospitable and he asserts a level of proudly-confident ignorance) are more caricature than deeply human. When juxtaposed with Buckley’s discomfort around strangers and Plemons’ child-like devolution around his parents, their performances are equal parts suffocating and sadly familiar. 

Both Buckley and Plemons are more subdued. They treat visiting Jake’s parents with all the comfort of visiting a gravesite. Uncomfortable questioning and forced conversational intimacy are supplemented with stories of Jake’s childhood that offer no hint of who he is currently. Wisely, Kaufman doesn’t give Cindy and Jake much characterization beyond the current topic they are discussing, allowing them to show their strengths as they move, chameleon-life, from one conversation to the next. They shift their focus from poetry to philosophy and stage musicals to classic film with all the blind image-building of a bad date, thinking that knowledge is the same as personality. Buckley delivers her dialogue almost exclusively out of the side of her mouth, so much so that you can see the indention in her cheek from take-after-take (or in her character’s case, likely year-after-year of speaking in a fashion where she isn’t fully heard). Her Irish accent is an unrecognizable amalgamation of every small town in the Midwest or Northeast. When she segues between her nervous uncertainty and her uncanny ability to remember every word of her recent writing, it is like she switches personalities whenever conversation allows her to leave her own head. Plemons’ Jake is the right level of distant, with just enough warmth to come off as caring.

Kaufman’s direction is about as restrained as possible for a film that joins dark comedy, family drama, suspense, and psychological horror. This is not a grandiose production like Synecdoche, New York, or the perfect yet unsettling world of Anomalisa. Kaufman chooses to film in Academy ratio, emphasizing the farmhouse’s massive yet claustrophobic qualities. While it might not be as technically impressive as his other films, it does show that Kaufman can take someone else’s story and use it to create his own world

Unfortunately, as I’m Thinking of Ending Things reaches the halfway point, it all starts to develop a very samey consistency. Whereas Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa felt like impenetrable and whimsical treasure boxes, Ending Things feels much more literal and on-the-surface. Maybe it is the limitations of adapting Iain Reid’s 2016 book, resulting in Kaufman having to telegraph twists and meanings early and often, though he wisely avoids committing (at least in an obvious fashion) to some of the novel’s eye-rolling twists. Still, for a movie that seemed to leave audiences in the cold for the first act, the lack of subtlety after the half-way point feels hollow and difficult to connect with. The last half is overlong, confusing droning nothingness with Hitchcockian suspense. While Kaufman has never been one to shy away from presenting discomfort in new and inventive ways, there is a point in I’m Thinking of Ending Things where he might go too far. The film often hints at twists or possible interpretations, but given where the story ends up, it’s hard to care.

Some people will absolutely love I’m Thinking of Ending Things and others will question why they watched the film in the first place. Neither perspective is wrong. My opinion of the film now is different than it was after I watched it and will likely continue to change. Good and interesting art requires deep-diving. It requires introspection to the degree that the screen becomes almost mirror-like. Still, I worry that deeper thought on I’m Thinking of Ending Things may end up being like dwelling on an old relationship, with the flaws covering everything in a heavy blanket of snow.

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