Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

Of the four main characters in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, only one of them is given a name that sticks. Jake (Jesse Plemons) will be driving his relatively new girlfriend (Jessie Buckley)—sometimes referred to as Lucy, then Louisa, then Lucia, and in the credits as the Young Woman—through the snow and dimming light to a remote country home where she’ll meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, credited simply as Mother and Father). Premiering on Netflix on September 4, Kaufman’s adaptation of Canadian writer Iain Reid’s 2016 debut novel has so far been met with one severe pan, a good handful of raves, and a set of fence-straddling reviews recommending that viewers go ahead and proceed—but with caution.

At In Review Online, Luke Gorham finds that 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,” though “the novel’s big reveal is merely the film’s artistic and noetic starting point.” Since we overhear the thoughts roaming through the mind of Buckley’s young woman, she would seem to be our entry point into a world where Jake’s parents can age and de-age decades between scenes, where Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! might waft in briefly as a dreamy ballet, and where a Dairy Queen–like fast food joint looks as if it may have been beamed in from Twin Peaks.

The pan comes from Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, who argues that Kaufman has “so dichotomized” the conflict “between the fake and the real, between bogus Hollywood uplift and the terrible ‘truth’ of what life is” that he’s “presenting the audience with a film that’s an homage to hopelessness.” I’m Thinking of Ending Things is “not just a quirky, morose downer of a movie—it’s didactically morose.” In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney agrees that this is “by far” Kaufman’s “bleakest” movie, “so steeped in suffocating anxiety it should come with a mental health advisory . . . But as an alternate-reality mood piece that toys disturbingly with our grasp of time and memory, and our ability to distinguish needling thought from tangible experience, it has undeniable power.”

At IndieWire, David Ehrlich suggests that if I’m Thinking of Ending Things “feels like both an act of self-parody for its director and also a radical departure from his previous work, that’s because it takes Kaufman’s usual fixations and turns them inside out. While this leaky snow globe of a breakup movie is yet another bizarre and ruefully hilarious trip into the rift between people, it’s not—for the first time—about someone who’s trying to cross it. On the contrary, Kaufman is now telling a story about the rift itself.” And for the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “it’s really scary in a way that conventional scary movies really aren’t scary: insidiously disquieting and yet also somehow poignant and sad, a secondary mood that finally, inexplicably emerges from an unending rhapsody of directionless weirdness . . . You can spend up to an hour wondering uneasily when this film is going to start, while also realizing that you have been on the edge of your seat.”

All the critics recognize that Collette and Thewlis are having quite a good time, and Plemons’s Jake reminds more than a few of them of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the star of Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008). Jake is “a schlubby, clever-clever beta male who can’t help but broadcast his worst qualities, as keen for you to listen as Blur’s ‘Charmless Man,’” writes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey. “No one’s listening. When he awards himself points for intelligence, you recognize, shun and pity him all at once. It’s a major performance.” Buckley’s is as well: “Blowing raspberries and stabbing her thumb, one moment she’s channelling Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974)—a movie Jake reveres, claiming to identify with its broken, wronged heroine. The next moment, lighting a cigarette that seems to come from nowhere, she’s Pauline Kael, telling him he’s entirely wrong, and launching for minutes into a verbatim chunk of Kael’s famously agnostic review.”

For Orla Smith at the Film Stage, one of the “true stars of the production” is cinematographer Łukasz Żal, best known for his work on Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) and Cold War (2018). Żal “makes a car ride through a snowstorm feel like a hellish journey into the darkest recesses of the mind by surrounding the vehicle with a deep pit of blackness within the boxed-in 1.33:1 frame,” writes Smith. In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips singles out editor Robert Frazen, “who helped establish the off-kilter, unpredictable time shifts of Synecdoche, New York,” and “handles the cutting rhythms brilliantly until the end, which goes a little flat.” Not for Hannah Woodhead at Little White Lies, though: “For the life of me, I can’t tell you what the hell happened, but I can tell you this: Kaufman’s innate ability to translate the innermost feelings of psychosis and anxiety onto the screen is unparalleled.”

As he wraps a virtual book tour promoting his debut novel, Antkind, Kaufman will soon be turning to another adaptation, this one for Ryan Gosling’s production company, according to Jenelle Riley in Variety. At the Film Stage, Leonard Pearce notes that Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police has been described as “a haunting Orwellian novel about the terrors of state surveillance.” Riley reports that Kaufman is also working on a limited series for HBO based on Arthur Herzog’s book IQ83, “about a virus that causes stupidity.” Riley also talks with Buckley, who evidently had a marvelous time working with Kaufman on I’m Thinking of Ending Things: “He is the most humane inhuman.”

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