A musical existential crisis is weirdly emblematic of 2020
By Diana Beechener
A young woman (Jessie Buckley: Misbehavior) waits on the corner for her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons: The Irishman) to pick her up, as she waves to his approaching car, she thinks about ending the relationship. Still, she had agreed to go visit Jake’s parents, so she’s stuck for at least one more evening before she can extricate herself from the relationship.
As they make their way towards Jake’s childhood home, things seem…off. The situation gets worse when they arrive at the home of Mother (Toni Collette: Dream Horse) and Father (David Thewlis: Barkskins). Dinner is off, conversation is stilted, and did Mother’s hair change mid-sentence?
The girl will have to figure out what’s going on if she ever has a hope of going home or ending things.
A weird and wonderful movie, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not going to be a crowd pleaser. Based on the mind-bending book by Iain Reid, this movie is an examination of how pop culture colors our minds and what exactly reality entails. This isn’t so much a film as a tone poem. And that means the narrative is looping and everything operates on dream logic. If you don’t have a solid base of pop culture knowledge (knowing the musical Oklahoma and reviews by legendary critic Pauline Kael would be helpful), I’m Thinking of Ending Things will seem to be two people having completely absurd conversations for over two hours.
Director/screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Anomalisa) is a master of mind-bending fantasy. The writer behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, Kaufman is no stranger to oddity. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman is really given room to play. One of the benefits of Netflix is its lack of interference, offering directors money and letting them loose upon the world. The result is a movie that would have never made it past studio test audiences. It’s strange, uncomfortable, and wholly wonderful if you decide to sink beneath the unrelenting waves of weird and let the movie sweep you away.
Kaufman doesn’t just layer oddity into the dialogue, the filmmaking itself is meant to unsettle you. There are obvious things—a dog shakes its head over and over, seemingly stuck in a loop—but the more subtle choices really make things uneasy. Pay attention to wardrobe and hair and how it changes mid-scene to evoke a sense of dreamlike uncertainty. There’s even a moment when Kaufman switches actresses, just for a few lines, just long enough to see if viewers are paying attention.
This is a movie that rewards attentiveness. Once you understand what’s going on (something I can’t discuss in a spoiler-free review), consider going back for a re-watch to see what you pick up. This is a movie that gets richer the more you view it as there’s no way to catch all the deep references and changing details.
With a film that’s so relentlessly abstract, the performances frequently match the subject matter. Collette and Thewlis especially offer cartoonish performances with loud laughs and macabre facial expressions. It’s easy to see why the young woman is so disconcerted in the face of Collette’s aggressive laugh. In contrast, Plemons and Buckley keep their performances natural. Plemons is a grumbling shy man with lots of thoughts but trouble expressing them to anyone beyond the young woman. The young woman is a whirl of contradictions as she neurotically picks her relationship apart. The glaring difference between Jake’s parents and the visiting couple up the tension and sense of disquiet.
If you enjoy the impressionistic nature of David Lynch films, consider giving I’m Thinking of Ending Things a try. Trying to detangle the narrative meaning is a fun puzzle that should keep you busy for a couple hours. If, however, you prefer your films linear and your acting straightforward, this movie will be a dizzying exercise in frustration. But I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a wonderful exercise in just how far filmmaking can be pushed while still communicating clearly with viewers. Give it a try and remember to keep your eyes peeled.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available for free on Netflix.
Great Drama * R * 134 mins.