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‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Review: Kaufman’s Brilliant Existential Netflix Drama Defies Every Convention

"I'm Thinking of Ending Things" proves that Charlie Kaufman's vision as a director is equal to his creativity as a screenwriter. (And that star Jessie Buckley is a force of nature.)

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

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She’s thinking of ending things. Whatever her name is. Lucy? Louisa? “The Young Woman,” as star Jessie Buckley is listed in the credits? It changes like the weather or the color of her winter coat, brazenly and yet in a way that you don’t really notice until it starts to snow. His name is Jake — it’s always Jake (Jesse Plemons). They’ve only been dating for about seven weeks, though seven weeks can be long enough to crystallize into its own kind of forever. He’s driving her deep into farm country in order to meet his parents, and she’s perverse enough to go along for the ride, even if she can’t shake the feeling that the two of them are about to reach an irreconcilable fork in the road.

Where did that idea come from, and how did it get here? It just seemed to show up one day, as if someone had incepted it into the deepest layer of her mind. But it’s real. It has to be. “You can’t fake a thought,” Jake once told her, and this one is exploding behind her eyes like a fireworks display that only she can see even though it tinges everything she looks at.

“You can’t fake a thought.” Those words appear twice in the opening paragraphs of Iain Reid’s 2016 novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” You don’t even have to turn the first page before it’s clear why Charlie Kaufman was so drawn to the book, as the filmmaker’s career has always been shaped by a fascination with the tortured — if tragicomic — relationship between the life of the mind and the world that’s filtered through it. Kaufman is obsessed with the cracked echo chamber of human consciousness; with the feeling that everyone is talking to each other through a two-way mirror; with the perverse irony that our inescapable ego-centrism is the one thing we all have in common.

From “Adaptation” and “Anomalisa” to his recent novel “Antkind” and all points in between, Kaufman’s work hinges on characters who are (often literally) trying to break free of their own brains and/or bodies and bridge the divide that isolates us from each other. Some of them succeed, some of them make peace with that gap, and some of them swan dive into it under the delusion they might eventually crawl out the other side. But at the end of the day, every Charlie Kaufman story effectively unpacks a different attempt to bust out of the same prison. As Millicent Weems put it in “Synecdoche, New York”: “This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone is everyone.” Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich.

If “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” feels like both an act of self-parody for its director and also a radical departure from his previous work, that’s because it takes Kaufman’s usual fixations and turns them inside out. While this leaky snow globe of a breakup movie is yet another bizarre and ruefully hilarious trip into the rift between people, it’s not — for the first time — about someone who’s trying to cross it. On the contrary, Kaufman is now telling a story about the rift itself. He’s tracing the invisible border where Jake ends and the Young Woman begins in the hope that he might be able to capture it on screen for even just a moment, like someone conducting a séance for all the dead space between us.

The result is an surreal, erratic, and strangely moving experience that circles around a realization it can’t put into words. Then again, maybe every Kaufman movie could be described that way. As in “Synecdoche” — a sprawling, almost incomprehensibly ambitious debut that anticipated how Kaufman’s vision as a director has now come to match his creativity as a screenwriter — the characters here sink into the film’s conceit instead of rising above it, allowing for all sorts of giddy “what the fuck am I watching?” strangeness along the way. Criminal as it is that “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” won’t have any sort of theatrical release, Netflix’s feed-the-algorithm philosophy likely makes it the only current studio that would pay for a movie that ends like this one (godspeed to anyone who tries to predict what happens in those last 15 minutes).

But while Caden Cotard may have hired a stand-in, he never became one. Here, on the other hand, the Young Woman never has a chance to be anything else. Kaufman has always taken the piss out of the manic pixie dream girl trope and flayed the way that men think of beautiful women as empty vessels that might hold all of their missing pieces, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that his first movie rooted in female interiority finds its heroine stuck in an impressionistic nightmare in which everything (herself included) is strictly representative.

And yet, for all of its self-insistent detours and high-minded indulgences, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” rarely feels like a concept in search of a movie. There’s a fullness and vitality to it that shines through even when the film is chasing its own tail, which is basically all it wants to do. It’s a trick Kaufman pulls off by following through on an approach that his screenplays have flirted with for as long as he’s been writing them: From the voiceover-driven prologue Kaufman has borrows from Reid’s book, to the sublimely disassociative new ending he uses to transcend it, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” feels less like a film about thought than it does a thought that’s been filmed.

The emphasis is subtle at first, expressing itself through the shifting uncertainty of a psychological horror movie during the looooooong opening drive to Jake’s parents’ house. Is the Young Woman receiving phone calls from herself? Why did she see a brand-new swing set outside of an abandoned farm? What’s up with those pensive cut-aways to a doddering high school janitor? Even by the time Jake and the Young Woman arrive at their destination for dinner, it’s already clear that you won’t get anywhere with this movie by taking it at face value. Watching it through a literal lens and trying to interrogate these characters as if they’re meant to be actual people would be as pointless as trying to follow an individual snowflake as it swirls around a blizzard.

Strapped into the front seats of Jake’s car and squeezed inside the claustrophobia of Łukasz Żal’s Academy ratio framing, the conversation between this doomed couple is so tense and discursive that it creates a kind of musical dissonance with the Young Woman’s internal monologue. They chat about Bette Davis and musical theater and the biological imperative that all living things have to survive — Linklater-esque dialogue laced with Bergman-esque dread. Kaufman starts to filter this movie through his own cinematic reference points, which grow increasingly explicit and hilarious as the story goes off the rails (these bits might be the only thing here that’s truly capable of being spoiled, so let’s just say that “Antkind” fans will be delighted to see that Kaufman hasn’t stopped torching his peers).

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Netflix

One minute Jake mansplains Wordsworth, and the next the Young Woman recites a scathing original poem from memory (actually the work of Eva H.D.). Sometimes the camera drifts over to her face as if it’s daydreaming. Zoning out. He’s talking about their future while she’s thinking about how they’re not going to have one. They’re less than a foot apart, and yet even then reality is still too subjective for them to share.

It’s hard to know how someone plays that, but Kaufman’s extraordinary cast figures it out. Vacillating between pitiable cluelessness and volatile frustration until you start to suspect Jake’s holding a “Get Out”-worthy secret in the basement of his parents’ house, Plemons’ sheepish performance uncoils at just the right speed until Kaufman finally lets him off the leash to show his range. But this is Buckley’s show, and she further cements her status as one of the gutsiest and most intuitive actors in the world — elastic and alive in a way that roots the movie in the here and now, even after it’s become unstuck in time.

Some of the things she’s asked to do here are virtually unprecedented in narrative cinema, yet Buckley leans into them with such go-for-broke grace that you hardly clock the strangeness. In her review of “A Woman Under the Influence,” Pauline Kael wrote that “Gena Rowlands is a great actress, but nothing she does is memorable because she does so much.” Buckley always does just the right amount. She conveys the inertia of being in a relationship that’s past its expiration date, and also the white-hot terror of realizing that it won’t just end on its own. It’s a performance that manages to be in the moment and outside of it at once, as if Buckley were both the subject of a Wyeth painting and simultaneously the person looking at it.

Toni Collette and David Thewlis are far more heightened in supporting roles, both of them beaming in from “The Twilight Zone” or a Grimms’ fairy tale as they play Jake’s parents like alien body-snatchers who got to the house early and are wearing the homeowners’ skin. Robert Frazen’s glitchy editing backs up the actors’ biggest choices by carving the middle of the movie into an atemporal slipstream where everyone is so nostalgic for the past and panicked for the future that they become too disoriented to function in the present. Everyone in Jake’s house feels like they’re dead and in denial about it — even the family dog. “Do we move through time, or does time move through us?” the Young Woman asks herself as Kaufman resists the urge to namecheck Chris’ Marker and Nolan. It feels like you can see what the director is thinking almost as clearly as he shows us his characters’ thoughts.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Netflix

By the third act of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” the pockets between memories and moments of time are as deep an abyss as the space between people. Conundrums stack atop conundrums. There’s no objective reality, but we all have to live together. Time is a construct, but we all get older. People are inexorably alone, but also incomplete without each other. Love, empathy, a sense of accomplishment… kissing, dancing, getting fast food in the middle of the night… most of the really good shit can’t be done on your own. Maybe dancing is a bad example, but someone needs to provide the music (Jay Wadley’s flurried, virtuosic score is as much of a scene-stealer as Molly Hughes’ lived-in and creaky production design).

We’re so damn stupid. How else to explain why the only species that’s aware of their own mortality is also the only species that’s capable of hope? How do those two thoughts co-exist in the same head, and what’s the value of self-reflection in an age of spectacle that Guy Debord presciently described as “the world interpreted through glass”? He also wrote that “quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs,” but Jake must not have read that part. In its way, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is less a narrative story than it is a delirious self-help guide to the things we hope to get from other people, even as they’re always moving away.

One last quote, this time from Oscar Wilde: “Most people are other people.” And they’re only growing more so. We’re all pollinating each other with the various things we’ve picked up along the way. Hopes, memories, and bad movies we’ve seen are all in the air around us. Good movies, too. They’re rare, but this is one of them. It will annoy a great many people — often, and deeply, and more for its chutzpah than anything else. But few movies about our natural isolation have ever left me feeling less alone, happier to be lost in my thoughts, and to know that you are too. There’s no escaping it. Jake says “everything is tinged. That’s the thing you have to realize.” If you don’t already, you sure will soon.

Grade: A

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, September 4. It will have limited theatrical screenings in some select theaters starting on Thursday, August 28.

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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