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When going into watching a film made by Charlie Kaufman, one must be ready to think. From the very beginning of his career in features, jumpstarted by his genius script for Being John Malkovich, the writer’s work has been defined by powerful themes, examined abstractions, and surrealist style, and has made films that specifically beg for analysis and examination rather than just existing for pure entertainment value. Kaufman is a filmmaker who aims to challenge an audience, and while that can present a struggle for some, it’s also remarkably rewarding to find yourself operating on his wavelength and engaging with his mesmerizing perspective.
His style has only become more refined since he started to direct his own screenplays, presenting a kind of unfiltered quality, and while it has been more than a decade since his last live-action effort, his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, his latest proves that he is as sharp and fascinating as ever. Based on the book of the same name by author Iain Reid, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a cinematic vision that only Charlie Kaufman can provide, outwardly presenting itself as a thriller built out of slow escalation that ultimately reveals itself as a unique meditation on identity and the existential absurd that will leave you unknotting your brain for days.
The film begins with the simple and familiar, as a young woman (Jessie Buckley) makes plans with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to drive out to his parent’s house for dinner on a particularly snowy late-fall day. As we glimpse into her mind through voice over, we understand that she is emotionally torn regarding the state of the relationship, as she is thinking about ending things and questioning her choice to even go on the trip, though her contemplation and hesitation is interrupted by forced conversation and observation by Jake.
Arriving at the remote farm house, things immediately get off on an odd foot, as Jake is reticent to introduce his mom (Toni Collette) and dad (David Thewlis), and our protagonist learns horror stories about the barn and meets Jake’s perpetually wet-and-shaking dog. Finally everyone does get together, and as the night continues and the snowy storm gets worse, reality bends further and further, with concepts like time and identity becoming ephemeral and like gossamer, with hope for escape and understanding slowly slipping away.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things demands every ounce of your attention, and is entirely worth it.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is the first Charlie Kaufman film to be released directly to streaming, though it can’t be stressed enough that this isn’t a movie that you should switch on during an evening when you’re occasionally jumping off the sofa to do a quick chore or spending time with chatty friends. The best of what the experience has to offer is found in the details of its contemplative dialogue and morphing existence, and the proper way to absorb it all is like a sponge not leaving a drop.
This assessment stems from the fact that this is a feature that isn’t particularly interested in providing the audience with firm answers to all of the questions that it inspires by the time, and it invites you to work to understand it and draw out your own takeaways – which is more rewarding when you’ve fully engaged with the material. It lends itself to fantastic post-screening discussion, and one of the advantages of it being available on Netflix is that it can be immediately rewatched over and over again. You’ll not only want to do it to dig further into it, but also because I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is immensely entertaining.
As broadly introspective as it can be, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is also delightfully weird and freaky.
Surrealism is a tool that Charlie Kaufman wields like a funhouse mirror, altering perspective in aim of gaining greater understanding of reality, but coming part and parcel with its philosophical effect is the fact that it makes the movie both fun and thrilling. You grin and quietly whisper “What the fuck?” as you realize that inconsistencies are starting to pile up regarding everything you know about the young couple at the center of the narrative, and as the film plays out its secondary storyline involving a high school janitor (Guy Boyd) performing his daily duties, and throws in a fake Robert Zemeckis-directed romantic comedy you’re left chuckling at the absurdity.
That same aspect of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, however, also has the wonderful ability to perpetually keep you on the edge of your seat. When the known rules of reality are failing to hold at the seams, there is an atmosphere created where you truly don’t know what’s going to arrive next, and Charlie Kaufman loves playing with that here. The slow-burn escalation is brilliant.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things presents a great acting challenging, but the entire cast is up for the task.
Of course, that atmosphere doesn’t play unless provided with properly grounded performances, and I’m Thinking Of Ending Things gets them from the entire cast – all of whom understand the assignment, so to speak, and do tremendous work with what is a challenging assignment. Jessie Buckley, who instantly proved herself a star last year with her lead role in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, puts in a turn that is subtle, dramatic and compelling; while Jesse Plemons is at once both mysterious and affable.
Having the most fun with it all, though, is the pairing of Toni Collette and David Thewlis, who operate will all manners of wild emotion and are utterly captivating in their extremeness. In the narrative they are agents of the surreal, and they are imbued with a particularly unpredictability that never allows you to take your eye off them once either of them has entered the screen. They’re captivating, and at times hilarious. After 20-plus years of watching Charlie Kaufman’s movies, audiences probably have a pretty good grip on whether or not they connect with his style – but it’s a promise that if you consider yourself a fan that you’re going to love I’m Thinking Of Ending Things. It features the very best of what the writer/director does so incredibly well, and will wrap itself around your brain like a coil as you work to decipher it all. It’s a phenomenal film that will go down as one of the best, if not the best, of 2020.