Netflix Movie Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

Writer-director Charlie Kaufman's “I'm Thinking of Ending Things,” begins with the words “I'm thinking of ending things.” Spoken in voice-over by the unnamed female protagonist (Jessie Buckley) at the center of the surrealist helmer's third feature film, in the lines that follow, we quickly deduce that she's pondering taking not her own life but herself out of her sparks-free relationship with the otherwise nice, unassuming Jake (Jesse Plemons), whom she's dated for seven weeks. 

Resigned to taking a road trip with the man nonetheless, the two embark on an unusual journey home to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at the farmhouse where he was raised. The couple is as polite as they are awkward with one another. Misreading each other's signals and on different wavelengths about not only their relationship but everything else as well, they have parallel arguments that only occasionally intersect.

Colliding most notably when he cajoles her into sharing one of her poems, Buckley's soulful recitation of the complex, deeply affecting “Bone Dog” by Eva H.D. (which is presented as though she wrote it) is one of the high points of the movie. Touching on certain themes and elements that recur throughout the film, the seductive sequence engages us completely. 

Yet even before Jake responds by saying that he identified with the piece and felt like she was writing it about him, the antennae of any literature majors and film buffs watching is already up, listening and digesting Buckley's words as a bit of self-conscious signposting or foreshadowing about their journey ahead. Knowing this, of course, the erudite Kaufman treats the poem like a tease and one that's as much about their quest to go home to meet his parents as it is just the first of many pieces of art, music, film, literature, culture, and criticism references to eventually follow.

“I'm Thinking of Ending Things” returns once again to the same questions of whether or not we are what we do and/or consume that have plagued Kaufman from the beginning of his career. Evidenced in his brilliant existential screenplays for “Being John Malkovich” when its characters were most themselves in the body of another or the charge that Kate Winslet's manic pixie dream girl in his script for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” relied on hair dye to compose her personality, all of these ideas get filtered into “Ending Things” to positive and negative effect.

Inserting a faux romantic film (fictionally directed by Robert Zemeckis) in the second act of the movie before its plot and characters spill over into the personalities of our young couple, Kaufman goes a bit further later on. Using a more subtle approach in the film's intentionally maddening second half, the pair debate and momentarily seem to embody the leads from “A Woman Under the Influence,” as well as Pauline Kael's review of the Cassavetes classic in a blistering sequence.

A poet in the car who becomes a painter in the house but also a college student studying quantum physics and a waitress, just as the biographical elements of Buckley's “young woman” change in Kaufman's film so does everything else, including the ages of both of our protagonists as well as his enigmatic, affable, yet slightly creepy parents. Then again, I should probably put the word parents in quotations because while we're initially led to believe that Collette and Thewlis are playing the parents of Jake, an argument could also be made that they're not.

In fact, that's the main thrust of this movie overall. We're never quite sure if we're seeing things the way they are or if these are daydreams or shifts backward or forward in time. The latter, we find, is explicitly referenced in the dialogue at one point and taps right back into the issue of quantum physics. 

(Over six hundred words in and I'm probably no closer to describing or making sense of the film that has still stayed with me since I screened it, but moving on...) 

Playing like a magical realism version of “Our Town” as directed by Federico Fellini, “I'm Thinking of Ending Things” is a stream-of-consciousness movie that grows more unwieldy as it continues. Weaving in ballet in just one of a handful of sequences inspired by “Oklahoma,” Charlie Kaufman's film, which was adapted from the acclaimed novel by Iain Reid, is unquestionably enhanced by having seen not only Kaufman's “Synecdoche New York” (which I really didn't like) and “Anomalisa” (which I really did) but the films he wrote for other directors as well.

In my eyes, he's at his best when he lets others – including Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry – interpret his mad artistic visions in such a way that, as dizzying and dense as they are, they become far more universal in scope. Without this vital human filter of another creative mind behind the camera, there's something about Kaufman's work as a director that keeps most mainstream audiences at not just an arm but the state of Oklahoma's length away. 

It's telling that of the three films I've seen that he's made, it's “Anomalisa,” which he shared directorial duties with Duke Johnson, that I liked the best. Perhaps needing that valuable cinematic translator or just someone who can take a look at his work and pare some of it down to only what is absolutely essential, the more he packs into the otherwise mostly excellent “I'm Thinking of Ending Things,” the messier it becomes. Still, as a treatise on relationships, aging, identity, and mortality, Kaufman's latest is far more relatable, in my eyes, than “Synecdoche New York,” which I actually watched again to prepare for this review and was disappointed to see that I still dislike. 

In addition to his many existential obsessions, which manifest in the strangest of ways throughout his work, however, one constant in every single one of Kaufman's films as both a screenwriter and director is that they're brought to life by an extraordinary cast. “I'm Thinking of Ending Things” (which arrives on Netflix on September 4) is no exception to this rule and features dynamic turns by all of its leads, most notably Buckley and Plemons.

A movie you'll undoubtedly want to discuss with others if, that is, you manage to make it all the way through since it was even a challenge for me (and I was hugely on board with it for at least the first 90 minutes), “I'm Thinking of Ending Things” should have ended things a little sooner than its 134-minute running time.

There's an old adage that because we all approach things differently and with our own experiences, attitudes, and backgrounds, that no two of us ever truly “sees” the same film. This movie proves that philosophy true better than any academy essay ever could. At the same time, it also seems to use it as a challenge to not only ensure that we all see something different in the same metatextual heavy text but also reminds us that what we think of something at one time might not be the same belief we have just five minutes later. In the end, it's all a matter of physics after all.  

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