In my reviews, I try to keep a level of professional detachment. I want to review a movie objectively. I don’t want to judge it solely on what it makes me feel. A fun movie can still be poorly-constructed and flawed, and a film with perfect technique and performance can be a frustrating and difficult experience. But I find that with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the latest film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, professional detachment is a luxury I can’t really afford.
The film follows a young woman (Jessie Buckley) as she goes on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents for the first time. During the drive up, she constantly thinks of ending things with Jake, whom she’s only been with for about six weeks. Meeting the parents turns surreal when the young woman experiences shifts in time and perception, seeing Jake’s parents at different ages and bringing her own identity into question.
Explaining too much more of the film borders on spoiler territory, so consider this your warning that MILD SPOILERS MAY APPEAR after this point. I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as I possibly can, but if you are desperate to avoid any and all spoilers (and I highly advise that you go into this film cold), skip to the final paragraph for my usual review summation.
My first visceral reaction to the film as I watched the end credits silently flash by was one of betrayal. This is not the existential, psychological, Twilight Zone-esque horror I was promised by the trailers. In fact, I wasn’t sure what I had just watched period, but I knew it wasn’t anything remotely close to horror. It gave me a distinct mother! vibe, but at least with that film I knew what I just watched the second it was over.
Instead, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is an experimental, metatextual rumination on how our fantasies and daydreams can color the memories of our lives. Of how we can invent entire relationships and histories from whole cloth, constructed of our hopes, desires, and own experiences. Of how we can project those fantasies onto real people and cause our memory to twist and morph to give us comfort. It’s almost purposefully arcane, an obtuse little labyrinth of a film that takes the book of the same name by Iain Reid and spins a tale of personal melancholy that can only be described as Kaufman-esque.
The film misleads you to believe that the young woman is our main character, but that gets turned on its head fairly quickly. Her name keeps changing, as does what she studies and what she does for a job. She inexplicably changes hair styles and outfits, sometimes within the same scene. Her background, the way she talks, even her accent shifts and bends over the course of the film, never truly settling on one definitive version. In much the same way, Jake’s parents are seen at different points of their lives by the young woman without explanation. As middle-aged, than older, than younger, than on death’s door.
The only constant in the film seems to be Jake, and it soon becomes clear that there’s something about him that makes him a kind of anchor in this instability. But that doesn’t bring any sense of safety or sanity in this transcendental chaos. In fact, it just raises more questions, some of which get answered by the film’s end and some of which linger in the mind long after the final frame.
Kaufman has a lot to say here, some of which he addresses directly to the audience through the young woman’s internal monologue and some of which he shows through the young woman’s experiences. Jake might be the one unchanging part of this story, but the young woman is the audience’s vehicle. The only horror aspects of the film show up in the exploration of her circumstances, where she comes to question reality as it seems to bend and buckle around her. Kaufman rarely heightens this awareness, however, and the tension and rising emotion you expect from horror is completely absent. This is a quiet storm, one that mimics that blizzard that forms the backdrop of every scene of the film.
Even if the story is a difficult road to navigate, the performances of the film help it go down much easier than it otherwise would. Jessie Buckley is immediately intriguing, her cynical and philosophical inner thoughts a contrast to her relatively more vibrant and colorful conversational voice. She’s appealing and captivating, her performance full of studied subtlety and deliberate nuance. She effortlessly morphs her approach along with the young woman’s constantly shifting identity, making every iteration of her character fully humanistic and relatable.
Jesse Plemons likewise makes Jake a very natural presence, albeit one of a much more focused and consistent character. Plemons keeps a tight grip on Jake’s reactions and responses, intentionally limiting his palate so that when Jake does have emotional moments they impact all the more. This is especially true when interacting with his parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis. Both Collette and Thewlis are adept at keeping their characters’ personalities intact across the various version of themselves that appear, and they’re especially good at keeping the rapport between them and Plemons consistent. The tension between all three during the family dinner is thick and purposefully uncomfortable, coming off nearly as intensely (but not nearly as explosively) as Collette’s brilliant performance during the family dinner in Hereditary.
As fantastic as the performances are, there is not a lot of narrative here, and that’s the one part of the film that honestly dragged for me. There is no real rising action here, no big climax. There’s barely even much of a story if we’re being honest. A full third of the film is made up of conversations Jake and the young woman have in his car when they’re either driving to or from Jake’s parents’ house. While this does help color the relationship between the two, and Buckley and Plemons are mesmerizing to watch, it seems a tad excessive bordering on indulgent in the moment. It takes getting to the end of the film, when these conversations are put in a broader context, for their full value and weight to be realized.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a film of the shadow self, a film that traffics in a form of deliberate deception that’s both intriguing and off-putting because it’s the kind of deception we all perform in our own heads every day. It’s about the malleability of memory while also being highly malleable in its own right. I watched it less than 12 hours ago, and even as I write this, the film is shifting in my brain, constantly threatening to slip out of my grasp. Did I like it? I honestly still don’t know. I may never. Did I appreciate the work that went into making it? Without a doubt. There’s a lot of talent involved here. At least that much I can say is objectively true.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things can be streamed on Netflix.