Categorizing Charlie Kaufman’s new Netflix film I’m Thinking of Ending Things as horror would be a mistake. In fact, labeling Kaufman’s latest to any genre, word, or single sentiment would be a mistake. With Synecdoche, New York sensibility still in mind, Kaufman crafts a sprawling, almost rambling piece of filmmaking, a piece of art that attempts to put indescribable feelings into pictures on a screen. It’s a film consumed with thoughts on aging, loneliness, isolation, memory, and self-reflection. At times, the film becomes all-consuming, making it difficult to catch up, or even react to the plethora of topics these characters grapple and often hurtle towards.
Kaufman, as a director, has never been, or wanted to be, the most accessible filmmaker, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things represents his least accessible piece of existential art, as he moves through genres, literary references, character names, and styles with rapid speed. In a twenty minute stretch, the four characters discuss quantum physics, geriatrics, William Wordsworth poetry, and stagnation within the Communist party. You’ll even hear a bit of a Pauline Kael review.
Kaufman, and novelist Iain Reid, create people akin to many of us, collections of facts spouted to appease, please, and impress those around us. Memories fade and morph throughout the film, as the foursome loses a firm grip on the reality around them, though the poems, the historical events, the scientific terms all stay intact, ready to be said at a moment’s notice to interrupt and correct a mistake made by your family or your significant other.
An adaptation of Canadian writer Reid’s novel of the same name, the film follows a Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), as they visit his parents for the first time. Plemons remains the only actor with a stable character name, with his parents billed as Father (David Thewlis) and Mother (Toni Collette) respectively. Buckley’s character never has the same name for too long, called different versions of Lucy throughout the film, leading to deeper points Kaufman looks at exploring, including how our perception impacts our reality.
There’s a lack of steady pacing in Kaufman’s newest, with the first act stuck in a car, the second stuck in a house, and the third split between a car and a high school, with little detours along the way. Flashes of horror, thriller, animation, musical, and drama filmmaking permeate the film, though Kaufman seems reluctant to commit to any of these genre boundaries, or determined to outwit them.
A piece of me felt like I was losing my mind. Another piece of me felt like I was being somewhat enlightened, reaching a state of heightened learning, listening, and growing. Confusion seeps into the film each time you think you’ve reached an understanding of who these characters are, what their motivations might be, and where this story is heading. It’s nimble in its effort to keep you guessing, surprised, and unsteady.
Jessie Buckley leads a cast showcasing a wide range of abilities and weirdness. Toni Collette and David Thewlis display comedic chops needed in any thriller-horror-drama-mood piece. Thewlis in particular gives a performance rooted deeply in opinion and memory, or the lack thereof. Together, they give a portrait of a couple growing out of love, out of memory, and out of existence. Contrasting them, Buckley and Plemons represent a fading youth, an idea that a character calls “brave” at one point in the film. They’re together out of either numbness or inaction, or a sprinkle of both. If audiences didn’t know Buckley from Wild Rose, she makes a case to be one of the most important actors in the world, someone who can carry a movie based in existential dread and the monotony of loneliness. Her ability to mirror Kaufman’s vision cannot be understated. She radiates a feeling of subtle malaise, one that humans feel without understanding why it’s filling up our bodies. For the first two-thirds, this movie belongs to her, with a late shift to Plemons and his frustration with his car companion and her supposed mastery, or memorization, of a certain John Cassevetes film.
Jake’s childhood home, and bedroom, is a near-immaculate presentation of the importance of production design, and the music, especially that of Oklahoma!, rears itself into your mind in the quiet moments of the film. Kaufman’s vision is being executed, though it will be sure to turn off a large portion of Netflix’s users and casual movie viewers. Knowing Kaufman’s filmography helps going into I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but too much reading and research might ruin the absurdity and amusement of the film, if there’s some to be had. I’m unsure any amount of preparation will actually prepare you to watch Kaufman’s continued dip into the ideas that exist in the deepest corners of our mind, until they’re suddenly bubbling at the surface. It’s a movie that is sure to reward second, third, and fourth viewings.
With I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman takes a step forward, though he understands that it’s not the only option. The director, his characters, and all of us can stay in this place, in this moment if we’d like. For some stretches, it’s a bright film to watch, riddled with questions, depression, anxiety, and actual riddles, most of which Kaufman doesn’t answer. The answers don’t necessarily exist, though. I’m Thinking of Ending Things discusses ideas rather than certain truths, and it hopes to describe emotions that humans struggle to process. “If you cannot write about the indescribable, put it on screen,” Charlie Kaufman said (probably).
Netflix will release I’m Thinking of Ending Things globally on September 4.