No name comes to mind quicker when trying to think of a writer/director who has a singularly original take on the surreal than Charlie Kaufman, a truly unique presence in cinematic storytelling. That is why his decision to adapt his latest film, the gnawingly titled I’m Thinking of Ending Things, from the book of the same name by Iain Reid. While the material proves ideal for Kaufman’s distinct voice, it might be his most controlled film, a loyal adaptation in keeping with Reid’s original tale but with a few of Kaufman’s signature idiosyncrasies thrown in for good measure.
Telling the story of a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who is taking the first big step in her new relationship with new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), an extended road trip to visit Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis). On the way though she begins to ponder where this relationship is going, where it started and even where she is going and who she is. These questions slowly chip away at not just her mind but also her memories as her sense of reality slowly starts to drain away. When they finally arrive for dinner, things get worse, and stranger.
Much like Buckley’s beleaguered protagonist, it’s hard to know what to make of the experience that is I’m Thinking of Ending Things as it feels like an extended delirium you just can’t escape. Not arguably too long or too short, its a film that just, exists, defying genre expectations and narrative structure gleefully. There are moments where Kaufman has crafted a deeply romantic picture, one of love among lovelorn people, the kind of relationships that desperation and fear bring together. Glimpses of genuine affection are found frequently, only to be broken up by someone saying or doing the wrong thing or just something brazenly abstract as she clings to the notion that she is ‘thinking of ending things.
But this is just one element of a film that constantly shifts through romantic notions, horror motifs and glimpses of dementia, sexism and everything in between. This genre confusion only makes the experience more frustrating but impossible not to fixate on because of it. Not only does an opening shot of a never ending blizzard of snow whipping through the air, seemingly up instead of down easily sets the tone and your mind in a state of perpetual confusion, a normal perspective in an upside down world. These moments of disconnect continue from the jarring sight of a constantly wet dog or the sight of the remnants of something rotting, as Jake explains, from the inside out.
The feeling that real memory is mixed in with the constantly shifting stories being told by these ever fluctuating personalities creates a consuming mystery that feels constructed solely for you, a personal puzzle where the answer is different for everyone. In that, Kaufman has constructed a singular experience, one that is deeply personal to both director and viewer. Your final thoughts could be about anything including aging, depression, loneliness and mental degradation or depending on how you read it, none of the above.
While impossible to talk about fully without ruining the experience, a descriptor it earns as this is exactly that, an experience, its hard not to embrace the four characters at the centre of Kaufman’s madness. Although mother and father are awkward and sometimes unpleasant characters (listening to Thewlis’ father talk about fucking with his son’s new girlfriend feels exactly like hearing the birds and the bees from a total stranger), Thewlis and Collette both embrace their pitiful natures and the half remembered notion of parental embarrassment that makes up their performances. Its in Plemons and Buckley’s performances however where I’m Thinking of Ending Things earns its achingly empty feel because despite being overburdened with nonsensical and verbose monologues and Kaufman’s signature pontificating, both squeeze every drop of solitary sadness out of his words in performances that feel constantly unsettling in a film that feeds off of their solipsism.
It’s a masterfully developed feeling, one that doesn’t so much grow as fester but because of this it means that despite some moments of black humour or lively pyschosis, the tone here is too often one-note. The film doesn’t so much ebb and flow but just flows, a consistent tone accompanying an inconsistent film. The irony being that Kaufman’s most level headed film could have done with being just a little nuttier. How you embrace the mystery of the human condition that I’m Thinking of Ending Things represents will determine how much you take away from Kaufman’s film but personally I found it a dream to submerge myself in the confusion that this nightmare represents.