Charlie Kaufman, master of psychological horror?
The title I’m Thinking of Ending Things suggests a joke about director/writer Charlie Kaufman’s reliably baffling third acts. But this Netflix release is an adaptation of Iain Reid’s acclaimed 2016 novel of the same name, and it’s a psychological chiller perfectly suited to our frayed pandemic brains. In it, a guy named Jake (Jesse Plemons) is taking his newish girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) home to meet the parents for the first time. In different hands, this could be a setup for Ben Stiller-esque slapstick. Here it’s a harrowing mind-bender about desire and death and time and the nature of reality and “Oklahoma!”
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis
Running time: 134 min
Buckley’s Lucy is our narrator, and she is indeed thinking of ending things, from the moment she gets in the car with Jake. Their stiff banter doesn’t really jibe with the notion that they’ve been a couple for any amount of time. Something feels off. Little details come unmoored, waver slightly. You find yourself questioning what you saw, or remember, about a character. What you heard, or thought you heard, in the background. This is the opposite of a comfort-watch.
Their arrival at his parents’ farmhouse takes the unease up several notches. Toni Collette and David Thewlis are a brilliantly twitchy parody of parental awkwardness. If you’ve seen Hereditary, it is very hard not to bring your Collette associations into this. She’s just such a master of creep. Lucy drifts around the house, meeting a surreal border collie who won’t stop shaking off water, and finding a picture of herself as a child on the wall. Only it’s Jake. Or is it? Time, as so many of us are fond of saying lately, means nothing, as the parents morph through different ages and life stages. How long have they all been here?
In cutaways, a janitor at a high school is watching kids rehearsing the roles of Curly and Laurey in Oklahoma! (the old-fashioned one) and, on TV, a Hollywood meet-cute story of lovers at a diner. Credits suddenly blare “Directed by Robert Zemeckis,” at which you can just imagine the staunchly anti-commercial Kaufman making a jerkoff motion.
If the car ride to the farmhouse was interminable, the ride back is doubly so. This sequence is really the test for whether you’re on board with whatever it is Kaufman’s up to. The conversation between Jake and Lucy (or is it Louisa?) flows through endless philosophical themes. Buckley’s character is a physicist, but she’s also a poet. And a painter. And, at one point, Pauline Kael, as Buckley waves a cigarette around and quotes at length from the critic’s A Woman Under the Influence review.
I’ve never been hugely impressed with Kaufman’s portrayals of women– his 2015 Anomalisa seemed particularly sour towards Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character–but his work with Buckley here is terrific, exploring the reasons one stays in a relationship that’s less than fulfilling. Plemons is also great, fusing a salt-of-the-earth affect with an undercurrent of something darker.
I’ve always believed old cartoons are deeply nightmarish, and Kaufman backs me up with Jake’s reverie of a black-and-white commercial for an ice cream shack called Tulsey Town, where the couple stops for dessert in the middle of a blizzard. The question is, whose nightmare is it? And where is it headed? As Buckley’s character tries to piece together what’s happening, you may find yourself ahead of her (especially if you’ve read the book), but Kaufman handily offers both a solid conclusion and a variety of ways to interpret it. The whole thing unsettled me profoundly, and echoed the sense of temporal chaos around us. Still, nice to escape into a world, even if it’s a horror-scape, where intellectual riffing is actually a virtue.