REVIEW – ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ is a strange, melancholy exploration of life, death, and everything else in between

Where does one even begin when describing a new film from someone like writer/director Charlie Kaufman? With his penchant for pushing the boundaries of storytelling and a strikingly unique style that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, Kaufman is a divisive auteur whose screenplays consistently defy the logic and traditions of cinema. Opinions of his work are always sharply divided, and his latest offering is sure to see a similar reaction.

Over a decade after his last live-action directorial effort, Kaufman returns with a film that’s likely to delight as many viewers as it will frustrate. If linear stories that make perfect cohesive sense are your thing, consider yourself warned. This one may not be for you. A strange, melancholy exploration of life, death, and everything else in between, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is as captivating as it is mystifying.

A film you could rewatch for the umpteenth time and still barely scratch the surface of what Kaufman has crafted, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a chaotic, provocative labyrinth that could mean all manner of things or it could mean absolutely nothing. It’s a mesmerising, dialogue-heavy journey into a world where very little makes sense and nothing is as it seems, but therein lies the bizarre exhilaration of taking a dive into Kaufman’s eccentric mind.

Kaufman begins his tale in simple fashion, as we meet young university student Louisa/Lucy/Lucia (the sublime Jessie Buckley), who is accompanying her relatively new boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemmons) on a road trip to meet his parents for the first time at their rural farm. As the awkward drive begins, Louisa’s internal monologue informs us she’s “thinking of ending things,” which could suggest a breakup with Jake or something far more irrevocable like suicide.

A quantum physics major and a secret poet, the young woman is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, particularly as her name changes numerous times throughout the narrative. As the pair of oddly distant lovers chat as if they’re both walking on eggshells, they arrive at Jake’s childhood ranch, where things take a turn for the bizarre. Jake seems hesitant to take Louisa inside, instead shifting to a morbid detour of a nearby barn where he regals his girlfriend with a gruesome story of a pig who was devoured by a group of maggots.

When they finally escape the falling snow and enter the homestead, Louisa meets Jake’s maniacally high-strung mother (a fabulously deranged Toni Collette) and frazzled oddball father (David Thewlis), who appear to take a great shining to their son’s new girlfriend. But something seems off right from the start, and things only get stranger once the dinner table is cleared. And what is to be made of the constant interjection of random scenes of an elderly janitor (Guy Boyd) cleaning the halls of a high school, who appears to have no connection to the storyline whatsoever?

Once our two protagonists escape the insanity of Jake’s farmhouse, you could be thinking the film is coming to a close…until you realise you’ve still got another hour of runtime. As the pair head home, they take an eerie detour to a roadside 50s-style ice cream shop called Tulsey Town and eventually wind up back at Jake’s high school for Kaufman’s wistful finale that raises more questions than it answers. The film tends to drag somewhat in this second act, given nothing is anywhere near as interesting as what occurred with Ma and Pa on the farm.

Everything within I’m Thinking of Ending Things plays like a fractured absurdist dream (or possibly a nightmare) that appears to make perfect sense one moment and then very little the next. The tone jumps from warm to cold in the blink of an eye, but constantly shrouded in melancholy and an aura of anxiety that builds as the storyline weaves its way to a conclusion that feels like something out of La La Land. Is it a portrait of a relationship in decline? Is it a snapshot of a woman on the verge of suicide? Is it a lamentation on a life that could have been? Is it all three? Is it none of these things?

Part of the thrill of watching Kaufman play with your mind is in the not knowing. It’s a purposely ambiguous film that may prove an endurance test some are simply unwilling to sit through. This is ultimately a rhetorical question without a definitive answer. A claustrophobic maze without a clear path to an exit. Misdirection abounds here, which you’ll either find oddly exciting or horrendously frustrating. Much like all of Kaufman’s work, the only way to ascertain your reaction is by giving the film a chance.

Regardless of your neverending sense of confusion, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is consistently engaging, namely thanks to the impeccable talents of its two leads, who are entrusted to carry practically the entire film. For those familiar with Buckley’s breakthrough performance last year in Wild Rose, you’re already well aware of her commanding screen presence. She’s equally magnetic to watch here, with a committed performance that grounds Louisa amongst all the madness unfolding around her. The phenomenal Buckley is deftly able to convey every emotion with the smallest of expressions and she offers a pitch-perfect depiction of the misery that is anxiety.

In an understated turn, Plemons once again proves why he’s quickly becoming one of the most reliable actors working today. Jake is perhaps the film’s biggest mystery of all, and Plemons takes his time to unveil the inner layers of a character whose blunt candour is both refreshing and unsettling. Collette is typically wonderous, as she chews the scenery with an unhinged performance that leaves you yearning for more. Likewise with Thewlis, who crafts wildly different versions of the same character as he trajects differing ages of his life.

The bulk of the action takes place within Jake’s car on the journey to and from his parent’s farm, where the two lovers spend an exhaustive amount of time trying to fill any moments of silence. Captured in boxy 4:3 aspect ratio by Oscar nominee Łukasz Żal, these scenes are regularly framed from outside the car, occasionally obscuring Jake and Louisa’s faces with the falling snow and slightly muffling their conversations with exterior sound effects. It’s a conscious choice by both Żal and Kaufman, adding a layer of mystique to these characters of endless contradictions. And the decision to film in such an aspect ratio only adds to the rising level of tension and forces Kaufman’s audience to pay close consideration to everything within each frame of Żal’s visuals.

Both Buckley and Plemons are handed long stretches of dialogue and it’s an unusual pleasure to watch them cover an eclectic range of topics including Gena Rowland’s performance in A Woman Under the Influence, the poems of William Wordsworth, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, suicide bombers, and whether the Christmas song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is “rapey” or not. You’re probably wondering how these unusual subjects appear in everyday conversation, but it’s Kaufman, so they merely appear from nowhere and then inexplicably vanish when the next topic is broached.

I’m confident enough to admit I’m still scratching my head and attempting to understand everything presented in I’m Thinking of Endings Things. I’ve sat with this film for days and I’m still stumped. Was this a break-up movie? A road-trip adventure into the bizarre? A suicidal drama? A horror film? A psychotic hallucinatory dream? An existential exploration of life itself? I’m thinking it’s all these things and then some. I’m also thinking I need to rewatch this film immediately.

It’s bleak, yet somehow thrilling. It’s dark, yet somehow beautiful. It’s an enigma of a film that will either make more sense each it’s viewed or just become even more perplexing. It’s a bewitching puzzle that begs you to solve it, but refuses to offer you any clues. Like all of Kaufman’s work, it’s an examination of life and all the complicated mess that comes with it. It’s a parable that constantly fluctuates between truth and illusion and I loved every absurd minute of it.

Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd, Hadley Robinson, Gus Birney
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Charlie Kaufman, Robert Salerno, Stefanie Azpiazu
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Cinematography: Łukasz Żal
Production Design: Molly Hughes
Costume Design: Melissa Toth
Music: Jay Wadley

Editing: Robert Frazen
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: 4th September 2020 (Australia)