If a Charlie Kaufman movie was linear and easy to understand, I don't think I'd like it very much. Kaufman, whose writing credits include Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, specializes in bold, unconventional storytelling. Surrendering to his unique vision is never less than thrilling. I'm Thinking of Ending Things, based on the novel by Iain Reid, might be his most mercurial effort to date – even more so than Synecdoche, New York. Once you accept that you're never going to understand its rhythms, this Netflix production reveals itself to be incredibly substantive.
The first 20-25 minutes are like My Dinner With Andre in a car. Lucy (Wild Rose's Jessie Buckley) and Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving through a blizzard. They've been dating less than seven weeks, but she's already, as the title suggests, considering breaking up with him. She can't now, though, because they're on their way to meet his parents, and that's a significant step forward. They talk about all manner of subjects during the trek, including poetry and their jobs.
Once they get to the old farmhouse where Jake's parents live, things quickly grow weird. His parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) are deeply eccentric people. Mother seems to be teetering on the edge of sanity, while Father has a barely concealed disregard for his son's girlfriend. This is the point when Kaufman throws a curveball at us. Jake's parents literally change. They're suddenly elderly and infirm.This is the first of multiple changes they make in age and appearance during the day. And what's up with that high school janitor the movie keeps cutting away to? Or those weird girls at the ice cream stand Lucy and Jake stop at on their way home – the remote one that's inexplicably open in the middle of the night?
I'm Thinking of Ending Things purposefully makes you wonder what's going on. Not just once or twice, but at least a dozen times. We're never sure if the movie is going to spring a surprise twist on us that clears the confusion up, or if Lucy is having a mental breakdown. Maybe it's something else. The film is a comedy at times, an existential horror movie at others, and a provocative relationship drama in spots. What does it mean? One could argue that Kaufman has made a Rorschach test of a film, where what you see in it depends upon your own psychological makeup.
Repeat viewings would certainly reveal new clues, but here's my interpretation after one viewing. As the title implies, Lucy is debating whether to end the relationship. Each “episode” she experiences seems to reflect her indecision about Jake. A couple of them make Jake look favorable in her eyes, as when he tenderly cares for his mother on her deathbed. Others are the opposite, as in a scene where he's weirdly controlling about her not going into the basement. Some are neutral, where Jake is appealing and appalling at the same time.
In other words, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a series of episodes strung together that collectively reflect the doubt Lucy is grappling with. Your takeaway might be different than mine. Part of the movie's pleasure is thinking about it, being challenged by it. In the final minutes, there's another dramatic shift in the way the story unfolds that's mesmerizing. You can't explain it, yet somehow it feels absolutely perfect.
At the center is Jessie Buckley, giving what may be the best performance so far this year. Every ounce of Lucy's indecision oozes out of her for us to savor. If the plot itself is typically Kaufman-esque, the actress ensures we identify with her character's emotions. She's the best part of a movie that's filled with weird, wonderful, quirky elements.
out of four
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is rated R for language including some sexual references. The running time is 2 hours and 24 minutes.