The mind can be a strange and beautiful place. Imagination is limitless and the capacity of the human brain seemingly knows no bounds but even at its most impressive moments, a darker undercurrent lies hidden. The mind can hold secrets and memories, create dreams and nightmares, and in the worst cases, completely fail the user with memories and functions forever lost or a seemingly endless barrage of ideas and people and things and thoughts screaming against one’s head. As it goes, in Charlie Kaufman’s unsurprisingly bizarre and unhinged I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, the mind and its power and deterioration lie within every frame, throwing both the participants of the story and the audience into a whirlwind of uncertainty.
Adapted from an allegedly solid book by Iain Reed, Kaufman and Reed’s story starts off innocuous enough as a young woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons) embark on a quick road trip to grab some dinner with Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their home. But as the title says, a thought gnaws at the Young Woman (whose name will change throughout the course of the film), as she is thinking of ending things with the seemingly affable Jake. As the Young Woman contemplates this through a variety of internal monologues, the two lover’s journey begins to gradually shift into unsettling territory as an outwardly microcosmic picture of a struggling relationship morphs into a much larger vista that tackles the existential dread of an elusive and constantly collapsing memory.
In other words, this is a Charlie Kaufman production through and through with his fascination of exploring the meta aspects of his stories in addition to taking care to find the aching core of humanity amongst his gallery of offbeat characters. While the film first moves like some sort of psychological thriller (which it is in more ways than one), I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS becomes a lot of other things in its occasionally dragging 2-hour runtime. To spoil what exactly Kaufman’s film switches into would be an injustice as even when the movie makes one abrupt shift to another, the filmmaker holds a steady hand on an increasingly unsteady story. Like some discombobulated phantom of a memory, small but noticeable details in sets, characters, and lines of dialogue shift on a whim as one instance may involve the ever-changing name of our protagonist or in the way the walls of Jake’s parents house almost always adds some kind of new room or wallpaper from scene to scene (or even between cuts). Even time itself seems to threaten to collapse on itself. With the help of cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s dreamy and soft camerawork and framing, Kaufman for all intents and purposes creates a believable world of chaos and uncertainty that still manages to retain a sort of bittersweet, nostalgic warmth.
In this volatile setting, having the likes of relative newcomer Buckley and the consistently great Plemons hold down the central roles proves its worth. Buckley indeed, plays a woman that is constantly on her feet from one moment to the next, caught in the worst kind of existential crisis brought on by the prospect of visiting your boyfriend’s family, that pushes the character and Buckley into a enthralling tightrope performance. Every interaction that Buckley and her character go through becomes nail-biting on a meta and narrative level as we wait with eagerness (or fear) to see what mask Buckley’s Young Woman will put on next in a performance that is dazzling in it’s unconventionality. Opposite of Buckley lies Plemons, who has made a name for himself playing a wide variety of characters ranging from the good-natured to the mentally walled off sociopaths. In this performance, Plemons gets to use both of these images, one in service of the other as his seemingly concrete appearance of a good-natured boyfriend morphs into something much more aggressive and wounded. Of course, Kaufman still finds time to give the aforementioned Collette and Thewlis some entertaining run as some of the weirdest and most off-putting parents put to screen as Collette more or less plays like a relative to her unbalanced character in Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY, expressing every pained smile and laugh with uncomfortable ease while Thewlis gets to be the kooky and vulgar yang to Collette’s distressed politeness. Even as Kaufman orchestrates the film into more bizarre and scattered territory, in turn flipping characters personalities on the whim, each performer shows a committed performance in helping imbue the wild and weird world of I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS with even more strangeness.
This ever-shifting form of a film becomes both engrossing and occasionally frustrating, especially in the film’s final third where Kaufman seemingly (and intentionally) loses complete control of the film’s ideas, themes, and genre in a cavalcade of noise and ever-changing characters before embracing it’s final quiet note. Indeed, by the time the credits rolled, I myself was more or less stupefied by what I had seen and what any of it meant but the feeling that I witnessed something that had true deeper meaning to it remained. Even after some outside research after my watch (as I have never read the book which is seemingly more clear cut in its conclusion), reading what the film was actually about only made Kaufman’s attempt at an adaptation even more intriguing and memorable. With every ebb and flow of the story, even as Kaufman threatens to get more pretentious even for his standards (particularly in regards to various intellectual discussions held between Buckley and Plemons), he nevertheless manages to find the complicated and almost sympathetic heart at the center of his loopy tale.
As with his other works, Kaufman is very much an acquired taste (or in my case, maybe his taste has beaten itself into mine) and his latest work is no different. It is at times haunting, funny, unsettling, and even sad and almost always aware of itself, sometimes all at once which doesn’t always work out. Even so, a Kaufman movie is never not interesting (in both negative and positive connotation) as the screen becomes a canvas for a man willing to tear it down and destroy it if only to piece it back together into a befuddling if memorable picture.