I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a masterful and surprising adaptation from Charlie Kaufman, a work of towering humanism braced by an exquisitely disorienting aesthetic.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of Ian Reid’s novel of the same name, is an intensely experiential film, so much so that it’s difficult to talk about without getting bogged down in minute specifics. Apart from being remarkably dense, it’s cumulative in a way that makes targeted discussion of any given scene rather difficult, which should be unsurprising given the director-screenwriter’s reputation for psychedelic narrative gymnastics. On paper, though, the source novel is something of an unusual fit for the iconoclastic artist. Reid’s book is an underwhelming but twisty thriller in the mode of any number of middling New York Times bestsellers, and Kaufman’s film largely retains its general plot and framework: Despite having almost resolved to break up with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), an unnamed woman played by Jessie Buckley (also the film’s narrator) goes to meet his parents, all while having to contend with strange, cryptic voicemails from a man she’s never met. But in adapting this generic puzzlebox setup, Kaufman demonstrates an elegance of vision elsewhere absent from his work — Adaptation is the closest point of comparison, but there The Orchid Thief offered more of a blank aesthetic canvas than does the forceful pulpiness of Reid’s novel — and the result is a film that somehow finds an empathic portrait of broken humanity amid the novel’s lurid morass.
Remarkably, Kaufman does this without ever relying on any guiding, overt emotionalism à la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Instead, he utilizes the book’s limited first-person vantage and obfuscating tendencies to harness a sort of controlled chaos. Indeed, the film’s dominant, disorienting stimuli are constant motion and endless disruption, both of which crescendo during the prolonged nighttime visit to Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), a meeting that only naturally takes place during a building snowstorm. If all of this seems a bit on the nose, it is, but placed in service of a surprising destination; the novel’s big reveal is merely the film’s artistic and noetic starting point. And so, it’s after this initial measure of tonal misdirection that the visual and verbal Kaufman-isms kick in. Conversations start to evince inconsistencies and conflicting bits of exposition — casually at first, and then with a menacing vigor. They start to function distractedly, doubling back on themselves and repeating. The pastel wallpaper and farmhouse décor, reminiscent of ’50s-era domesticity and so beautifully captured by Cold War DP Lukasz Zal, likewise begin to morph, slightly and then sharply. Scene stagings shapeshift from one cut to the next, as do the usual stabilities of costume, hairstyle, and even age. Facades crumble, literally and figuratively, but are then quickly intact once more.
Kaufman also takes full advantage of the source material’s vapidity: In the novel, story construction is placed in service of a single conceit, the payoff, but in largely abandoning the fitted mystery elements of the text, he is able to instead indulge the metaphysical esoterica and cerebral musings that so demonstrably inform his work. It’s certainly a writerly flex, but it isn’t just affectation. The constant chatter between Jake and the narrator, which covers everything from cinema to science to spirituality, can have a numbing effect, and that’s by design — in one of the film’s most affecting moments, after several minutes of ambling conversation decrying the use of platitudes, Jake breaks down for a brief moment while repeating the familiar wall art bromide, “God will never give you more than you can bear.” For both the character and audience, it’s a jarring, emotionally intrusive moment, one made even more powerful after later revelations that demonstrate Kaufman’s nimble mastery of dialogue.
In another scene, the pair debate the quality of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, a clear spiritual cousin to I’m Thinking of Ending Things. But it’s the differences between the two films that are most notable. The grim if histrionic realism of Woman is here traded for sensorial abstraction and visual expression of that interior turbulence. Where Cassavetes’ film progresses more or less linearly toward an inevitable endpoint, I’m Thinking of Ending Things constantly spins outward, drawing attention to the present-tense details of its unstable, centrifugal course. It’s in this comparison that it becomes easy to see that Kaufman has always been a bit of a puzzle-piece writer; not in the gimmicky, dime store sense, but in his inclination toward precise storytelling mechanisms and their thrilling sense of gestalt. It’s interesting, then, that he took inspiration from a novel that perverts and simplifies his favored mode. I’m Thinking of Ending Things retains Kaufman’s preferred ornamentations — both the general malaise of Anomalisa’s introspective narrator and the bewildering reality-blurring of Synecdoche, New York are present — but there is a messy expansiveness, even an unguarded quality, to the film’s climax that he has never before embraced. All of this amounts to what is his most tender film: his intricate flourishes are in service of something far gentler and open-hearted than any of his previous work. There’s the sense that, perhaps for the first time, Kaufman’s art and his heart are fully in sync.
You can currently stream Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things on Netflix.