Charlie Kaufman has been channeling his depression into strange entertainments for decades, but I can’t think of one better timed than the just-released Netflix film I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which is unsettling, moving, and ingenious. With its glacial pace and affecting air of melancholy, one might think it too tough a pill to swallow during these pandemic/election end times, but there’s a quiet, moody beauty to its sadness, along with Kaufman’s usual mind-bending structure, visual flair, and quirky humor.
A young woman (Jessie Buckley) is about to go on her first road trip with her new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). She has reservations about Jake, a nice, smart, sensitive guy; she just can’t see herself sharing a life with him. She’s already considered ending the relationship, but decides to soldier through the trip for Jake’s sake. Together they journey to a remote farm to meet his off-putting parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) for the day. What begins as a long, amiable drive soon devolves into an awkward family visit, and then a bizarre return journey, during which their lopsided relationship begins to inexorably deteriorate.
In summary, it doesn’t exactly sound like a laugh riot, does it? But this is Kaufman, and that isn’t the intent. The simple plot framework of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is shot through with a mysterious air of fantasy, and from its first thoughtful frame there’s an atmosphere of “things aren’t what they seem” infusing the film. The film builds this mood masterfully, then gradually deciphers it. It’s not a movie you passively ingest so much as decode, its mundane surface littered with oddball clues hinting at an unseen picture beyond the frame. This makes it a thought-provoking exercise, one in which the viewer must evaluate and theorize in search of meaning. Impatient viewers might find it a slog, then, but others will find it riveting. I was in that camp, because while there’s a certain degree of coyness to the puzzle’s construction, it cleverly deploys numerous clues, and isn’t really hiding anything.
But there’s more to it than the puzzle. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a real showcase for its performers. Buckley in particular delivers and award-worthy turn in a rich, peculiar role. Collette steals the show in comedic support, while Plemons and Thewlis are both exceptional and perfectly cast. Every line of dialogue is loaded — with philosophical weight, baffling hints, thematic resonance. And Jay Wadley’s music score is lush and powerful, perfectly capturing the piece’s unique tone. There’s always been something tragic underlying Kaufman’s existential vision, but he finds real beauty in it as well, and never more effectively than here. A work of genius.