There are quite a few strange roles in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things – a singing cartoon clown and a talking pig corpse among them – but none are quite as surprising as the inclusion of legendary film critic Pauline Kael. At one point in this bizarre, brilliant hallucination of a movie, the Jessie Buckley-played lead transforms into Kael to excoriate her boyfriend over his misinterpretation of John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. It’s a surreal moment, even by Kaufman’s standards, and the fact that it works is testament to a titanic performance from Buckley, working in perfect harmony with the description-defying film around her.
Adapting Iain Reid’s acclaimed debut novel, Kaufman digs deep into the existential anguish of losing yourself in a going-nowhere relationship. A young woman (Buckley) is taking a dead-of-winter road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to see his parents at their remote Oklahoma farmhouse. She sees it as the final thing they’ll do together before she breaks things off, his view is evidently quite different. This drive takes up a full 20 minutes and is fantastically excruciating, two people who just can’t quite get their conversation to flow, instantly unnerving you, especially in the moments where Jake seems able to hear the woman’s thoughts, which slowly but surely sour his initially optimistic mood.
It’s at the farmhouse that things get truly freaky, though, the young woman becoming less and less sure of herself as she’s consumed by Jake’s frantically weird family. Her name is Lucy, or is it Louisa, and she studies quantum physics, or is it film? As her identity dissolves, horror sets in, and every corner she turns is gripping. Time moves strangely for everyone except her – she experiences the dinner with Jakes mum (Toni Collette) and dad (David Thewlis) as one mortifying, though finite, evening, but the parents age rapidly, or even backwards, decades passing with the turn of a head.
Buckley is given a near-impossible task here, to make sense of the dream logic that pervades every moment of the film and sell a tangible, human terror in reaction to it, and she rises to the occasion magnificently. Plemons, too, is excellent, and though Collette and Thewlis are, by the nature of their roles, more cartoonish, they find kernels of sympathy within their oddness. No one, though, could ground the final third of this film in any sort of literal reality.
A stressed-out return to Jake’s old high school catapults the surrealism into as high a gear as the most out-there sequences in Synecdoche New York or even Anomalisa. Kaufman leaves it up to the audience to discern what at least some of these sequences might mean for the plot, but for the most part it’s more advisable to just sit back and bask in the magnificent wondrousness of it all. I may not have ‘understood’ everything going on – the sheer depth of Kaufman’s cultural reference points see to that before the surrealism even kicks in – but every moment is so deeply felt that it doesn’t matter at all. As a finale, it has something of the ending of Beau Travail about it, and the fact that that comparison doesn’t particularly diminish Kaufman’s film is perhaps the greatest sign of its excellence.
A lot of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things feels like a waking nightmare, trapped in an unfamiliar, ever-shifting house, unable to move quickly or decisively enough to escape, but as off-putting as that atmosphere might be, it’s also completely intoxicating. Lukasz Zal’s bleakly beautiful cinematography and Molly Hughes’s painterly set design immerse you in both the dark corners of Jake’s home and the raging blizzards of the rural Oklahoma roads, and it takes a long time after the credits roll to really shake off the trapped feeling that Kaufman creates.
Add to that a dinner scene that dials up the social discomfort to Peep Show levels and you have a film that sears into your brain immediately, but also lodges itself in there more insidiously. When news came that Kaufman’s next project would be a novel adaptation for Netflix, there was some concern that he might be diluting himself after the commercial failure of his last two outings as director. Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth and, with the endless questions posed by its endings, it perfectly suits the platform, practically begging to be rewatched. No one but Charlie Kaufman could have made this movie, and it’s unlikely that anyone except Netflix would have funded it. It’s an enchanting, serendipitous collaboration that has resulted in one of the best, most unclassifiable films of the year.