How impenetrable can a film be, before you dislike it? I’m Thinking of Ending Things feels like another attempt by director Charlie Kaufman to flip everything sideways, as we follow a tragicomic scenario so off-kilter that most areas simply label it as a psychological horror film. I suppose that’s appropriate, but this isn’t about whether the genre assignment is right or necessary. This is a look at a film trafficking in themes familiar to the other work written and directed by the man behind Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York. What did I come away with? I’m thinking of rewatching things.
As out there as this feature may get, there is a basic structure to it. Jessie Buckley is a young woman (and literally credited as ‘The Young Woman) who has just hopped in the car with her boyfriend of several weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons). The two are headed out on a long road trip to have dinner with Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). While there may be a plan to head back home that same night, a blizzard will complicate things, along with other strange detours on the road and with reality itself.
There’s a running theme playing into this road trip. It directly connects to this film’s title. The young woman is very unsure about her relationship. Kaufman, using the gift he has for working voiceover into his features, has Buckley’s character continually relaying information to us through narration. It’s a stream of consciousness continuously flowing out of her mind, despite it being occasionally interrupted by Jake. There’s even a chance that her thoughts are louder that she may know. That’s only a hint of the surreal.
A lot of this film takes place in Jake’s car. Kaufman happily torments the audience by placing us with a couple having an awkward time speaking with one another, as well as letting us in on why they connected in the first place. Both are intelligent people, with knowledge ranging from an academic understanding of science, to poetry, to classic cinema (be ready to hear references to both Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence AND Forget Paris, starring Billy Crystal). So, what’s the problem with these two?
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not so much about diagnosing these people as much as it is exploring what is trapping them. Whether or not Jake and the young woman are right for each other is beside the point, as the nature of who they are is constantly upset by the film’s shifting balance. Interesting chemistry is given pause thanks to unanswered phone calls or a change in temper. A sense of distance is turned around once the young woman portrays an ideal girlfriend as far as perfectly getting along with the parents of her partner.
The film ends up feeling as though the viewer has climbed into a box at first, only to realize they are stuck inside a Russian doll with alternating doors to get out. Does that make things confusing? You bet. Does that make the film frustrating? It depends. Trying to interpret what Kaufman is going for, even when he’s adapting material (such is the case here, as the film is based on a novel by Iain Reid), means coming up with answers that will not be confirmed for you.
From my perspective, this journey is less about specifics and more about the free-flowing nature of things, such as the rambling thoughts in the young woman’s head, or the display of time that allows the parents to be unstuck in reality, yet oddly relatable. Thewlis and Collette are no strangers to unusual films (Anomalisa even starred Thewlis as the hapless and kinda-awful lead character). The heightened performances they provide have a way of bouncing between quirky comedy and slow-boiling terror, but the film is not theirs.
I’m thinking of Ending Things easily belongs to Buckley and Plemmons (both being named Jesse almost feels like a power move to fuel Kaufman’s eccentricities, with the bonus that both are great actors). The sheepish nature of Plemmons’ Jake is balanced by areas where he’s able to show his range, whether that be unchecked anger or a musical moment. Meanwhile, Buckley finds all the right notes to play in a tricky performance allowing her to share everything on her mind, yet still feel like a mystery. At the same time, Kaufman has long understood how to decode the archetypes found in indie romance stories and take them in different directions.
It’s just as well an arthouse film such as this has wound up on Netflix. Even with theaters closed, it’s not as though a wide audience was destined to climb into the box I have described. There’s so much of a “what’s going on now” vibe that finds a way to settle into the story the more it carries on, one can’t help but either go along with the bizarre proceedings or scroll to the next item in the queue. Ideally, people stick with the film and head further down the rabbit hole, at least to arrive at a climax that is unexpected and beautiful.
Unpacking I’m Thinking of Ending Things is designed to be a challenge. There was once a time when that was a regular occurrence for mainstream cinema. Hit films didn’t always require action-based spectacle. Kaufman remains on that more classical track, even if he has the means to apply modern sensibilities to an utterly auteur-driven piece of filmmaking. At over two hours, there’s a lot of movie that does not attempt to hold any hands. Instead, a mix of humor, suffering, reasoning, and perhaps even joy all play roles in one of the stranger road trip movies out there.