I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The ambiguities in that title – knotted within it like slimy, wriggling hagfish – are unsettling. Not resolved to end things, just thinking about it; rolling it over in one’s mind, the way one compulsively tongues a raspberry seed caught between one’s teeth. And what things, exactly? A relationship? A life? There’s a tone of half-hearted resignation in the words, suggesting a gradual dissolution rather than a sudden crisis. Not a marriage that has shattered into a million pieces. Not an existence that has been abruptly turned inside out. Just an accumulation of disappointments and dissatisfactions, until one day the thought floats up from the inky depths of the subconscious.
I’m thinking of ending things. These are the first words of dialogue in writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s new feature film. They are not spoken aloud but murmured internally, within the mind of a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who is about to meet the parents of her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons). The couple seems to have an intense connection; so why, she wonders, is she thinking of ending things? It’s only six weeks into the relationship. (Or is it seven? She’s going to say seven, if anyone asks.) There’s nothing wrong with Jake, of course. He's a smart guy, a stable guy, a nice guy – she reminds herself of his essential niceness several times. Still, the thought has arrived, and now she must contend with the cancerous sensation of inevitability that appears in its wake. Something is ineffably wrong. And so she’s thinking of ending things.
Every Charlie Kaufman feature is, in one respect or another, a smudged porthole that peers into the murky mindscape of the notoriously dyspeptic filmmaker. This has especially been the case since Kaufman moved behind the camera with his 2008 directorial debut, Synechdoche, New York, a surreal, existentialist masterpiece that plunged, Inception-like, into the Russian nesting doll of the filmmaker’s neuroses. Anomalisa, the 2011 stop-motion feature Kaufman co-directed with Duke Johnson, is only sunnier in a relative sense – that film being, after all, a desolate comic fable about the dead-eyed banality that inexorably creeps into all human relationships. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the first Kaufman-directed feature that he adapted from another writer’s work, but it’s clear why Canadian author Ian Reid’s 2016 novel resonated with the filmmaker. A dreamlike psychological horror story, Reid’s book is dense with winding ruminations in which the protagonist’s own mind seems as inscrutable as a phantom stranger.
In the film, Buckley’s character is only credited as Young Woman. Her name is Lucy or Louisa or maybe Yvonne. She’s been receiving ominous voicemails from an unknown caller recently, all impossibly originating from her own number, and her smartphone can’t seem to decide how to label these missed calls. (The color of her sweater also keeps changing from scene to scene, a vexing detail that proves to be among the mildest of the film’s oneiric mutations.) Like the pleading, unanswered telephone calls that descend through Diane Selwyn’s layers of feverish denial in Mulholland Drive (2001), these voicemails hint at the unstable character of the universe in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. What begins as a tragicomic domestic scenario soon evolves into something else entirely, a nightmare of dissolving identities and Möbius-strip unrealities. It is Kaufman’s most unrelenting, oppressive, and challenging film to date, as both a director and screenwriter. It is not to be missed.
Initially, the film isn’t quite so bewildering. It at first plays like Kaufman’s take on Meet the Parents by way of Louis Malle. As the Young Woman and Jake speed down a snowy rural highway on the way to his family’s remote farmhouse, the couple discuss the passing sights, but also movie tropes, suicide bombers, and Mussolini’s trains. The Young Woman recites one of her poems, albeit reluctantly and only after much prodding from Jake. (She’s a poet.) It’s only later in the film that the viewer learns that the poem in question – an intensely bleak passage titled “The Bonedog” – is not actually hers at all, but that of real-world Canadian poet Eva H.D. This will become a recurring phenomenon: The Young Woman absorbs the work of others and passes them off as her own, albeit in a manner that suggests foggy delusion rather than malicious intent.
The film’s dry absurdism is mostly of the linguistic sort during its first half-hour, with the Young Woman sprinkling non sequiturs and acerbic commentary between the lines via internal monologue. Once night falls and the couple arrives at Jake’s family farm, events take on a more bizarre and menacing character. Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) are peculiar and overbearing, and their behavior seems to put him perpetually on edge. A sumptuous country dinner appears abruptly on the kitchen table, but the family barely eats, so preoccupied are they with the couple’s meet-cute story and the Young Woman’s landscape paintings. (She’s a painter.) The Young Woman glances at a photograph that appears to depict her as a child, but then she looks again and sees that it is Jake. The family’s border collie shakes off the snowy damp over and over, as though it were a glitching algorithm in a computer simulation. Characters appear and disappear, and eventually Jake’s parents begin to pop up as their younger and older selves. All the while, the Young Woman’s phone keeps ringing and the sinister voicemails keep coming.
Things only get weirder from there. Throughout, Kaufman intercuts these scenes of the Young Woman’s increasingly strange travails with snippets from the dreary life of a nameless, phlegmatic high-school janitor (Guy Boyd): cleaning hallways, scrubbing toilets, watching television on his lunch break. The students giggle at him behind his back and glare reproachfully at him when he stares for a little too long at the girls rehearsing for the school’s production of Oklahoma! (Wait, didn’t Jake mention something about Oklahoma!?) The relationship between this subplot and the Young Woman’s storyline is obscure, and viewers hoping that it will be resolved with anything approaching clarity by the end are going to be sorely disappointed. The film’s various strands do intersect eventually, albeit in a completely flabbergasting fashion: It involves a ballet number, an awards ceremony, and a talking cartoon pig.
Comparisons to Mulholland Drive are eminently fitting, as it turns out: I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Kaufman’s Nightmare Film, a descent into repressed memories, art-inspired fantasies, and scrambled identities that proceeds according to a spooky-accurate dream logic. Like Lynch’s film, Kaufman’s feature feels unmistakably like a horror tale, albeit one where the threat is as ambiguous as the existential terror is intense. (A glance at Jake’s childhood VHS collection is the genre giveaway: The Mummy, Carrie, Salem’s Lot, Maniac, The Hidden, They Live.) As always, the miracle of Kaufman’s work is his virtuosic ability to summon resonance from the idiosyncratic details of his cinematic fever dreams. Kaufman himself seems to acknowledge this as one of his goals, when the Young Woman pointedly observes in regard to “her” poem, “I guess that’s what one hopes for in writing a poem, some universality in the specific.”
Although I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not as aggressively metatextual as Adaptation (2002) or Synecdoche, it is deeply absorbed with the space that art occupies in people’s identities. Not to mention science, history, philosophy, and pop culture: The subject of trivia in general crops up repeatedly in the screenplay, and the film dances provocatively on the line between flattering its viewer’s erudition and sneering at those (including the artist himself) who would substitute knowledge for a personality. Not for nothing are Jake and the Young Woman both depicted as slightly insufferable pedants. Kaufman’s screenplay and Molly Hughes’ ace production design go out of their way to reward viewers who know their William Wordsworth, Anna Kevan, and David Foster Wallace, repeatedly eliciting the polymath’s version of a fanboy squeal. At one point, the Young Woman launches into an extended recitation of a Pauline Kael review on A Woman Under the Influence (1974), with Buckley smoothly adopting the renowned critic’s tics, down to the cigarette in her hand. This and similar moments seem designed to at once excite astute viewers and lament the hollowness of such references for references’ sake.
The Young Woman appears to have constructed her identity from the work of others, although her chosen career changes from scene to scene (or even within a single scene). Is she a poet, painter, film critic, virologist, or quantum physicist? The uncertainty rumbles threateningly underneath the ragged surface of the film, like the farmhouse’s thudding basement washing machine – in which the Young Woman inexplicably finds the B-plot janitor’s dirty coveralls. Indeed, the high school where that sad-sack janitor works exhibits a kind of gravity on the story, pulling the Young Woman and Jake to its empty, echoing halls as the dream begins to collapse. Dread for the anguish to come co-mingles with regrets over losses long past, but as a Bizarro-universe Dairy Queen clerk tries to warn the Young Woman, “You don’t have to go forward.” That title is always there, echoing in the back of the mind: I’m thinking of ending things.
What does it all mean? A different filmmaker could not get away with the sort of nonsensical plotting, surreal digressions, and avant-garde flourishes that Kaufman slathers onto I’m Thinking of Ending Things. (That said, the film never reaches the same heights of post-apocalyptic lunacy as Synecdoche, but it’s also not nearly as funny.) Like Buñuel, Lynch, and the Brothers Quay, Kaufman is the rare director whose work within the surreal evinces a profound understanding of its slantwise semiotics and emotional authenticity. Like all his works, the director’s latest has a potency that belies its sheer strangeness. It’s redolent and genuine in the manner of, well, great poetry. However, more so than any other film Kaufman has written or directed to date, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is absorbed with the mysteries of the mind. It’s both an awestruck rumination on consciousness’ essential weirdness and a lamentation for all the misery it begets. It’s mesmerizing, but also as severe and suffocating as anything the filmmaker has created. You have been warned.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things will be available to stream from Netflix on Sept. 4, 2020.