I’m thinking of ending things. I really should just shut it off. Flip the switch. Pull the chord.
I’m thinking of ending things because this nightmare won’t end. I can’t tell if this film is awful or brilliant. Maybe it’s both.
Ending things doesn’t matter, though, because this film doesn’t have an end. It’s a loop, a cycle, a fugue, and a reverie rolled into a loop. It’s impossible to shake.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things…
Heads be-trippin’, so one knows that one is deep in Charlie Kaufman land with this labyrinthine vision. I’m Thinking of Ending Things dives into the subconscious and goes somewhere deep and dark. It might be too deep and too dark a rabbit hole for some viewers. Many people will outright hate it, and rightly so. However, for those of us who aren’t inspired to send their laptops hurtling through the air following a trip through Kaufman’s wild, weird, and wacky mind, this film is one hell of a ride.
The film adapts the novel of the same name by Canuck Iain Reid. It’s a thrill to see Kaufman tackle a book once again. Kaufman, after all, rewrote the book on post-modern adaptations with Adaptation. His 2002 screenplay reimagined Susan Orlean’s New Yorker-y book about orchids into a tragic meditation on the creative process. Kaufman inserted himself and his alter ego (both played by Nicolas Cage) into the story while reimaging Orlean (Meryl Streep) as an orchid-snorting fiend. Comparisons between I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Kaufman’s debut screenplay for Being John Malkovich might be more obvious since both works plunge within the subconscious. Kaufman’s adaptation process thrills more than the Freudian slips do. On one hand, Kaufman completely captures Reid’s novel; on the other, he explodes it like a grenade.
I Really Should End It
Kaufman’s third feature as a director actually benefits audience who haven’t read Reid’s book. After a faithful start, the adaptation increasingly diverges from Reid’s novel despite adhering to its tone, style, and structure. The film, like the book, begins with a young woman (Jessie Buckley) on a road trip. (The book and all promotional materials for the film call her “The Young Woman,” but Buckley’s character is outright referred to as Lucy, assuming that’s actually her name.) “Lucy” and her relatively new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons make their way to meet his parents at the family farm. It’s a long drive on nondescript country roads in the dead of winter. In her mind, the trip seems pointless since the relationship may be short lived. As Lucy recounts in rambling voiceover, she’s thinking of ending things.
Tension and anxiety mount as the couple drives for 20 minutes. Lucy’s thoughts about terminating punctuate Jake’s idle chatter like suicidal thoughts. He natters incessantly—pointless stream of consciousness stuff—with lame jokes and obligatory road-trip observations, reading sights and pointing out plain sights. The drive plays out in real time, although Kaufman keeps it much briefer than Reid does. He forgoes the subplot with The Caller even though the young lady receives random calls from herself on her phone. The Caller’s message is a mantra throughout the book, but the film utters it only once. Listen to it carefully.
When the couple finally arrives at Jake’s farm, one shares a palpable sense of exasperation having survived the ride. The tease of the first act—tedious despite the briskly paced editing—brilliantly sets-up the off-kilter atmosphere for the second. If you’ve made it this far, keep going.
I Really, Really Should Be Ending Things…
For audiences who haven’t shut off I’m Thinking of Ending Things, buckle up for act two. The second part of the film offers a macabre family reunion. Jake’s mom (an unhinged Toni Collette) and dad (a creepy David Thewlis) welcome their son and his gf after leaving them hanging. The kids are not all right from the looks of this farmhouse. It’s old and creaky, complete with a sketchy basement door riddled with scratches galore. There’s also a dog that won’t stop wagging his tail, and utterly incomprehensible behaviour by Jake’s parents once they appear.
If the young woman is Alice, she’s dangerously far down the rabbit hole. Once the banquet is set, though, nobody touches a speck of food during dinner. Canadian audiences are used to seeing this (re: budget), but like any a good horror film, the family dinner is where I’m Thinking of Ending Things gets crazy. Kaufman shifts the film between past, present, and future tenses. Collette and Thewlis are middle-aged in one shot and nearly decaying the next. These fleeting memories or visions aren’t Lucy’s though, and seeing so far into Jake’s head rattles her.
Where the first act of the film is bides its time, the second act of Ending Things ups the crazy. The tempo increases at an unnerving pace while the antiquated, almost Gothic farmhouse lends an air of time frozen. Collette’s off-the-wall performance, meanwhile, makes her work in Hereditary look subdued. She subverts any sense of security afforded by maternal figures. Her uncanny presence leaves one feeling that Jake’s girlfriend really should have dumped him before parking.
…But I Just Can’t.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning the peculiar old man who appears infrequently. Ending Things cuts to an elderly janitor now and then. These shots are perceptibly random. Other times, they blend with a sound bridge as, say, an old Broadway number connects him with the younger couple. Any viewers thinking of ending things should stick with it to discover his place in the puzzle. This film brings a point of no return: dive off the deep end and discover a new kind of crazy.
The film’s third act, which features another road trip, a Dairy Queen stand-in, and an eerie high school, veers sharply from the path set by Reid’s novel. What ensues is a feverish frenzy as the young woman tries to escape the nightmare. Where the book connects the pieces of the puzzle, Kaufman further shatters it. A dance sequence and a musical number are among the more logical twists in the film’s twisted psyche. The impressionistic danse macabre of Ending Things calibrates a fine madness. One must abandon all rational thought to crack the code.
Buckley and Plemons don’t get to perform the film’s La La Land-esque number, but their tango as the ill-matched couple dances smartly to Kaufman’s beat. These roles task the actors with revealing all about their characters in their timing. Like well-suited dance partners, they match themselves beat for beat, colliding the film’s stream of consciousness flow with shrewdly placed cues that help unlock the narrative conceit. Plemons’ downtrodden Jake deflects any glimmer of light Buckley brings to the frame. If the young woman is ready to end things, then Jake’s all but flipped the switch for her.
No End in Sight
As maddening and infuriating as this movie is, it burrows under the skin, permeating one with a desire to go further and explore deeper the darker it gets. Kaufman’s film offers a visual interpretation of Reid’s novel and, like Adaptation, needs to alter the source text dramatically in order to do it justice. There’s no way to adapt Reid’s book literally without dumbing it down or making it obvious. The source material bears its own indebtedness to Kaufman as Reid’s story reads as if Clementine and Joel took a wrong turn in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and fell into Being John Malkovich. While it’s not as tight as his previous directorial effort Anomalisa, it’s fascinating to see Kaufman filter the tale through his signature preoccupations and deliver a challenging and genre-bending study of troubled minds.
This cerebral reimaging really gets the story’s portrait of mental illness. It leaves one flipped, shaken, and disoriented all the while getting to the heart of its tragedy with elusive clarity. And with an urge to watch it again.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things debuts on Netflix Sept. 4.