I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
This review contains spoilers for the first half
I’m thinking of reviewing things. Yet the latest from Charlie Kaufman, based on the chilling debut by Iain Reid, is probably his least accessible outing to date. It’s also next to impossible to describe it without going into its themes. The trouble is that these themes tell us a lot about where the story goes – since they are expertly married into the plot, the structure, and the sorts of character journeys we see. So before going further, know that you’re maybe best being blind. However, stick around and I hereby promise I won’t give away anything that isn’t in the first half. And I promise not to spoil the third act (not that I’m sure I even could).
So, to stay safe, let’s start at the start. Jake (Plemons) is taking his new girlfriend Lucy (Buckley, though her character name changes a few times during the first half) to meet his parents. It’s a long drive through the snow so, on the way, they discuss philosophy, poetry and why the hell a new swing-set is sat outside an abandoned building. The important part, as the title suggests, is he’s trying to form a connection with her and get to know her better, while she struggles for reasons to keep it going. If she’s unsure on the way, she’s even less sure when she’s sat down with mum (Collette) and dad (Thewlis) for the most awkward dinner on this side of Hereditary. During it, Lucy’s name changes, as do her job and how they met until it seems like what we’re seeing are many relationships playing themselves out – a possibility anchored by her changing clothes between shots, and his parents getting older and younger between appearances. This house is a place where the usual rules of time and etiquette don’t apply, and pictures can change depending on who is looking at them. But if all this seems strange, wait ’til you see what happens when they leave and go into the blizzard.
It’s tough to categorise I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It’s sort of horror – or at least horror adjacent – in as much as a lot of its success comes from the sense of eeriness created as they drive through the wilderness. It uses the language of this genre too, borrowing several tropes – including creepy silhouettes in the window, deserted landscapes and foreboding warnings like ‘stay out of the basement’. Yet, unlike the book it’s based on, it very rarely seems like it’s supposed to be scary. Instead, it’s like a dream which viewers ought to immerse themselves in – I know it’s on Netflix, but put away your phone etc. Sometimes it’s about making audiences feel uncomfortable – cringing with their whole bodies as Jake’s dad questions how a painting of a field can be sad. Equally, it’s a sincere, and sometimes uplifting, meditation on loneliness and the different ways in which things could have gone if we don’t “slide into the onslaught of identical days”. It’s about identity: who we are and who we could be. Could we be an award-winning scientist, enjoying the recognition of our peers, or the lowly janitor, who shows up every so often, cleaning up after dark? It’s about the alternative lives we walk by, or ignore, every single day: the people we may have if we’d only taken different chances. As embodied by our leading lady.
It’s a testament to how good Jessie Buckley is that she can go between several personas, create different backing stories and even recite Pauline Kael’s review of A Woman Under The Influence while finding an emotional centre. She may be playing several different women or several different fantasies of women. But, she finds a common vulnerability and humanity in all of them. Her reading of the poem Bonedog (actually by Eva H.D), as she stares deep into the camera, is among the most moving scenes of the year – an attempt at communicating directly with us outside the narration which always seems to get interrupted by Jake just when she’s getting started. Speaking of Jake, Jesse Plemons has a more concrete role and plays it with a world-weary sadness. He’s disconnected, and has been getting ever more so – lonely and bitter, but also a romantic waiting for someone he can relate to. Both work wonders together, as they mumble or speak their way through the dialogue, that ranges from naturalistic to downright weird. Their characters make a crappy couple, but the actors are great on-screen together. Collette and Thewlis are decent too, giving more exaggerated performances, with different types of mania, and play to the heightened reality Kaufman does best.
I suspect audiences will figure out roughly where this film’s going quite early on. I’m not even sure the twists can be called twists, since it watches like a slow process of realisation, as we figure out what’s going on. Yet what it does when it gets there is something completely unexpected. Sometimes, surreal pieces like this can be tricky to invest in – particularly when they seem most concerned with being clever. Despite the frosty aesthetic, though, there’s a real warmth to this movie. It’s not necessarily apparent at first, given the title explicitly evokes suicide as well as the end of a relationship. Still, it’s there in the ideas characters strive towards and the few moments of bittersweet joy that turn up. At it’s best it’s a delicate movie with moments of beauty and transcendence. I doubt it’ll go down well with a lot of people who watch it – particularly if they’re looking for something spooky and the Netflix algorithm sends it their way. Hell, for the first half-hour it may seem like it’ll be exactly what they want, before turning into more challenging and I’d say rewarding territory. On that, I’ve probably already said too much, by this point – so I’m thinking of ending this review here.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available on Netflix