Why carry on with something that you know is doomed? “Maybe it’s human nature to go on in the face of this knowledge” posits the young woman (Jessie Buckley) at the center of Charlie Kaufman’s new film, his first directorial effort in 12 years (he doesn’t count Anomalisa.) This impulse to call it quits is at the very core of his — aptly named — I’m Thinking of Ending Things, in more ways than one.
On its face, the film is about a young woman, and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), on a snowy road trip to the country. It's their first trip together, a journey that should be about beginnings, but it’s the end that has nested in the mind of the young woman, eating at her every thought. She’s a mercurial girl, her thoughts as fluid as her name or the color of her coat. In one moment she could be Amy, a student of physics, as spirited as her bright red outfit. In the next she might be Lucy, reciting a poem as dark and icy as her deep blue sweater. The changes come subtly, so much so that you might question if you’ve missed something. Perhaps your mind is playing tricks on you. Whether she’s Lucy, Amy, Yvonne or Luisa, one constant remains, one nagging thought: “I’m thinking of ending things.”
Jake, it’s always Jake, seems like a nice enough guy, the young woman herself admits it. He’s smart, kind, caring and a lover of the arts. That might, in fact, be his defining quality. Along the drive, Jake quotes countless movies, plays, poets and authors to a girlfriend who seems less than interested. As they drive along the icy rural roads something shifts. The young woman, who cared little for her boyfriend’s love of poetry, begins to recite her own writing with the steely tone of a lifelong poet. Unchanged in appearance and personality, she’s become someone else.
For Buckley this is the type of role that could spring her to the next level of recognition. Originally cast to Brie Larson, the young woman she portrays demands the type of versatility and range only accessible to the very best actors at the the top of their game. And Buckley delivers. Anyone who has seen her act in the last year knew she had it in her, but watching her dominate the screen here is nonetheless staggering. Even when Kaufman’s ambitions get dangerously broad, Buckley keeps things grounded.
How long Jake and the young woman have been together is unclear — she thinks it's been 6 or 7 weeks — it’s also unimportant. After a while a relationship changes a person, sometimes so much that they become unrecognizable to themselves. The young woman has lost all sense of who she is or was before. She's herself only in relation to Jake. The car rattles on towards its inevitable destination and the conversation shifts to film, something the young woman compares to a virus, latching onto unsuspecting minds, “changing us into itself.”
Like so much of Kaufman’s prior work, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is highly referential. The film itself name checks Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump), imitates A Beautiful Mind and pays homage to Oklahoma!. Jake is constantly contextualizing his life through media. It’s hard to watch and not imagine that Kaufman sees some of himself in Jake. Two people who can’t help but see the world through the works and words of others.
When the couple finally arrives at their destination, Jake’s family farmhouse for dinner with his parents, Kaufman’s eccentricity really starts to come through. Jake’s mom (Toni Collette) and dad (David Thewlis) come off less as people than as caricatures, zany inventions of a foggy mind. Visiting a significant other’s family is always a bit of a nightmare, doubly so when they start to rapidly age and de-age in front of your eyes. Quickly, the young woman starts to realize that reality is not operating in any manner that she understands.
Running parallel to the journey of the ill fated couple is that of a lonely old high school janitor (Guy Boyd), who looks just enough like Jake to give away the game. Still, It’s jarring to see his mundane daily tasks spliced in between conversations by the two leads. With every tension breaking scene of the old man mopping floors or eating lunch it becomes increasingly clear that he’s a big part of the puzzle. The revelation will come at a different point for every viewer but eventually it’s unavoidable.
By the end of a visit straight out of The Shining it’s abundantly clear that none of this is real. The young woman is an invention living in the aged mind of Janitor Jake. Wandering the halls of his high school, ostracized by gawking students, Jake is also thinking of ending things. Life hasn’t gone the way he had hoped, his diligence and potential wasted. He hasn’t decided yet, but that thought tugs at him constantly, “I’m thinking of ending things.”
In that context, this road trip is still an inflection point, just a much more consequential one. Its still either the beginning of a new journey or the inevitable arrival at an expiration date. Formed by some amalgamation of women Jake had once loved, admired, or perhaps only seen on a pinup or in a cheesy rom-com, the young woman acts as his subconscious. Throughout the day she represents Jake’s will to carry on. Her bright, cheery appearance grows darker, more harsh, as the cold winter storm intensifies and the drumbeat of “I’m thinking of ending things” grows in Jake’s head. How can he carry on if even his mind’s creation wants out?
This is exactly the sort of high concept, twisted exploration Kaufman has always been drawn to in his work. Throughout a much acclaimed career he has excelled when shining a light on the abstract corners of memory and the human mind. His films are weird and often hypnotic, they aren’t for everyone. But Kaufman does one thing better than most any writer working today, he makes those abstract corners feel both deeply personal and simultaneously universal.
Those feelings that Jake experiences, at an extreme level, are the same pains of regret we all have felt. What if things had worked out with Lucy? What if I had worked up the courage to ask out Louisa at that bar so many years ago? Perhaps, with the right woman by his side, the road ahead wouldn’t feel so treacherous. On his final journey through memory and time he desperately searches for some solitary sign that things could have been different, that his life could have taken another path.
If it sounds like I’m Thinking of Ending Things is just another story about a toxic old white dude, it is. As tiring as that type of movie can be, Kaufman finds a way to make it work. Jake is no hero. Even in the recesses of his own mind he’s prone to bouts of anger. His memory is a distortion, and not a kind one to the people in his life. All along the drive he is combative with the young woman, in all those typical toxically masculine ways. He corrects her constantly, always looking to debate this woman he’s imagined.
By the end of the return trip, this imagined world is unraveling at breakneck pace. A road trip film turns into a dream ballet, then a cinematic awards ceremony. You almost feel bad for Jake, but not in the way he feels sorry for himself. It's sad to watch his self-pity and his desperate attemp ts to lay the blame elsewhere. In the final scene Jake performs one telling song from Oklahoma!: Lonely Room, originally performed by Jud Fry, the lonely, obsessive, villainous cowhand.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things isn’t really the puzzle people have made it out to be. Rather, it’s a series of breadcrumbs that don’t all make sense until you reach the destination. Kaufman behind the camera, and not just the pen, makes for a much bleaker film than something like Eternal Sunshine. People’s mileage will vary. But for those who dig in, there is so much to find. Each viewing — and each viewer — could take away something different. In that way, it’s almost a perfect fit for Netflix, all of Kaufman’s hidden details available to be discovered at any time.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is abstract and bleak, yet it's captivating in its own elusive way. The best film of the year to date. 10/10
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix right now