A film review by Craig J. Koban September 16, 2020


2020, R, 134 mins.

Jessie Buckley as Young Woman  /  Jesse Plemons as Jake  /  Toni Collette as Jake's Mother  /  David Thewlis as Jake's Father  /  Colby Minifie as Yvonne

Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, based on the novel by Iain Reid


I have a confession to make:  

I've been putting off writing my review for the latest Charlie Kaufman film I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS for as long as possible.  As a matter of fact, almost for a week now after screening it on Netflix (which produced and released it).  

An adaptation of the 2016 debut novel of the same name by Canadian author Iain Reid, this film is almost impossible to classify (and discuss in detail without engaging in spoilers...but I'll try), other than to say that it's part road trip drama, part absurd comedy, part psychological horror, and, yes, it's all Charlie Kaufman in brain teasing, mystery box dispensing mode that only he is uniquely capable of.   

Its core premise is basic enough and involves a young woman that's having doubts about the longevity of her relationship with her boyfriend, but nevertheless decides to journey with him to meet his parents, but that's barely scratching the surface here.  I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS is masterfully bizarre and hypnotically dense and complex, so much so that it, paradoxically enough, it truly demands an attentive theatrical viewing experience versus streaming consumption, the latter of which poses all sorts of nagging at-home distractions that can potentially spoil viewers from properly taking in everything that Kaufman throws at them here.  Describing Kaufman's past work as eccentrically warped might be a grand understatement (see his script for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH or ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), and it's always clear with his films that the writer/director is aggressively exploiting our preconceived conceptions of what constitutes linear storytelling form.  I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, perhaps more than any other Kaufman effort, is an almost exhaustingly indecipherable puzzle to consciously put together and will definitely test the wills of even the most patient of filmgoers, but I grew to mostly accept and embrace its grim weirdness.   

Talking about this film's "plot" (if I could even call it that) is kind of daunting, but, again, I'll try my best here.  It opens by introducing us to a young woman (Jessie Buckley), but she's often referred to in the story as either "young woman" or by many other names (that's just the beginning of the WTF aspects of this narrative).  She's waiting to be picked up a particularly lovely snow covered day by her new boyfriend in Jake (Jesse Plemons), who seems good natured, caring, and supportive enough, but because he's played by Jesse Plemons you just know early on that he's not completely playing with a full deck.  We may be a few months into their relationship (the film never accurately communicates a specific time frame) and we get non-specific details about the Young Woman: she's a college student majoring quantum physics...or...maybe it's film criticism...or something else (again, the film leaves things purposely hazy and ill defined).  Regardless, she's a razor sharp minded and independent woman that (via a voiceover track) reveals to us that she's "thinking of ending things."  At one point while this track is informing us of this, Jake turns to her and asks, "Did you say something?"  




Anyhoo', Jake and his girlfriend are on a long and arduous winter trip to Oklahoma to visit his parents (played in two of the most enthrallingly strange performances of the year by Toni Collette and David Thewlis), and something just seems, well, incredibly off about this couple right from the get-go.  At some points they appear inviting and congenial and at other times hyperactively frigidity and uncomfortable within their own skins.  And speaking of skins, these people also have this truly odd tendency to age back and forth from one scene to the next.   Then there's the family dog Jimmy, that's supposed to be dead, but appears very much alive and prone to shaking his head over...and over...and over again.  Then there's the dark and ominous scratch marks on the door leading to the basement.  And before you can even begin to ask the question as to what in the hell is up with Jake's family, Kaufman sprinkles into his story a seemingly incongruent and seemingly unrelated subplot involving a high school janitor (Guy Boyd) that, during one moment, watches a fake movie within the movie (a romcom directed by Robert Zemeckis) and, during a later scene, is watching high school students engage in dance like it was all part of some sort of dreamlike, fantasy montage. 

I mean, what of earth is going on here??? 

True to form, Kaufman has made a career of helming movies that never hold audience's hands to tell them what's happening from scene to scene.  I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS is not a work to be taking literally, I guess, or one to be broken down into the more basic elements and plot dynamics.  The most accurate manner I could describe it is that it's an ethereal emotional experience of haunting ambiguities.  The infinite mysteries offered up here are, yes, either going to be terribly frustrating to the point of inducing anger for some or kind of endlessly mesmerizing (depending, of course, on how one reacts to this material).  Who is this Young Woman?  Where does she come from?  What is her  actual name?  What's up with Jake's parents?  Why do they morph from being quaint and folksy to almost psychotically unhinged in the manner of seconds?  How do they age decades in seconds, only to age back again to their current age in an equal number of seconds?  Why is that damn dog repeatedly shaking his head in a nightmarishly unsettling loop?  And, Sweet Jesus, why does Kaufman give us this janitor character on top of every other exasperatingly opaque element?  I don't think it's a spoiler to say that I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS...um...ends with the most bizarre rendition of the musical OKLAHOMA ever before it cuts to its end credits, which superficially seems like Kaufman maliciously flipping the bird to logical narrative cohesion.   

Here's the thing, though: Kaufman's film, at least to me, becomes a unique case study in getting lost in trying to decipher all of its peculiar and frankly out-there aspects and put them all together to make some meaningful semblance of a whole.  I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS might benefit, in this respect, from repeat viewings that Netflix affords in order to fully take in and comprehend what Kaufman is trying to do here (granted, even I have some reservations about wanting to sit through it again in the near future...more on that in a bit).  And it's exciting early on to come to grips with the fact that this is most definitely not going to be yet another iteration of the MEET THE PARENTS comedic formula...like...at all.  Instead, it defies predictability at every turn and becomes something more audaciously and richly convoluted in terms of scripting and themes.  There are clear cut vibes of romance and comedy here, but also some dark psychological underpinnings that drawn it in closer to cerebral horror.  The look of the film is important in all of this, with Kaufman working with cinematographer Lukasz Zal in the tight 1.33:1 aspect ratio that, like THE LIGHTHOUSE last year before it, creates this evocation of eerie claustrophobia.  You feel I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS slowly and methodically closing in on you while you try to decode it.  And there's individual moments of absolute nail biting tension here as well achieved in the most uncommon ways.  This film has one of the most unsettling dinner scenes of recent memory, which becomes scarier by the minute because of the implied threat of what may or may not happen next. 

Jesse Plemons (one of our most underrated of actors) and Jessie Buckley - God love 'em - craft two remarkably textured and memorable performances here, which is made all the more remarkable considering the sheer nonsensical insanity that surrounds them from beginning to end.  They carry a majority of this film on their capable shoulders and even manage to make some of the more endurance testing sections quite captivating because of their lively chemistry.  The fact that they manage to evoke characters of authentic weight here that just so happen to be caught in a completely topsy-turvy story that defies the normal rules of reality as we know it is a testament to their collective thespian skills.  To be fair, and when it comes to overt criticisms of I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, lesser actors leading the charge here would have made many long winded sections of the story borderline unwatchable.  Consider the opening acts, which are easily the film's most elephantine in terms of pacing and momentum.  During this time we witness these two characters engaging in nearly a half hour of philosophical banter on a series of contradictory and longwinded academic subjects.  Plemons and Buckely are so damn good in these stretches of endurance testing back-and-forth dialogue that it's unfathomable to think of how this film would have worked at all without them. 

But, yeah, I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS becomes almost too punishingly long for most tastes, even those that revel in all of Kaufman's avant garde stylistic trappings.  At nearly two and a half hours, this film might be 20-30 minutes too long for its own good, plus the director using an unholy amount of head spinning story techniques, editorial cheats, and shifting focuses will probably have many a lay Netflix streamer closing the app well before its first act is even over.  I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS isn't a straightforward movie to consume and enjoy.  It requires an acute level of attention and willingness to surrender to its non-stop madness.  I found myself, in the end, marvelling at all of its gripping conundrums, but I can also understand why so many will perceive it as impenetrably self-indulgent.  I'm thinking of ending my review of I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS...mostly because my brain hurts thinking about it anymore.  My three-star rating seems like an easy compromise for a film that's never once easy to compartmentalize...or watch, for that matter. 

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