“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” the characteristically mind-bending new film from Charlie Kaufman, offers viewers an existential road trip through the beginning (or is it the ending?) stages of a young couple’s romantic relationship.
The singular, endlessly creative filmmaker behind “Anomalisa” and “Synecdoche, New York” — as well as the writer of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Being John Malkovich,” among others — Kaufman delights in testing the boundaries of visual storytelling.
In their own unique ways, each of his films reflect Kaufman’s own preoccupation with the absurdity and the anxieties related to humankind’s existence in this world. And as a result, his films are impossible to categorize easily.
The basic setup of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” appears to be fairly straightforward: Lucy (Jessie Buckley, so fantastic in “Wild Rose”) is accompanying her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) on their first trip together to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) in their farmhouse in snowy, rural Oklahoma. They’ve been dating for just a few weeks, but she’s begun to sense that things aren’t going to last between them. And she’s decided to end things.
Of course, this being a Charlie Kaufman film, that initial premise is simply a springboard to launch the narrative into ever stranger explorations of human consciousness. The visit with Jake’s parents doesn’t exactly go well, and she comes to regret embarking on this journey in the first place. She’s eager to get back to the city, and as they begin the blizzardy drive back, he seems to keep finding reasons to prolong their trip. Then things get really weird.
We’re constantly reminded of how we experience life through the warped filter of our own minds. The nature of identity, and of time and space itself, is slippery. We’re always propelled forward by Lucy’s inner monologue, as she narrates in a stream of consciousness. “You can’t fake a thought,” she ponders at one point early on in the film.
In fact Lucy might not even be her name: at first she’s Lucy, then possibly Lucia, or Louisa (she’s listed in the film’s credits simply as “The Young Woman”). At different points she’s described as a painter, a poet, or a physics student. Details are constantly changing, creating an effect that’s a bit hallucinatory and dreamlike. Things feel off, even when you can’t point to any concrete reason why.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is based on Iain Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name, described as a “psychological thriller.” And though Kaufman has reimagined significant aspects of the story, by tilting your head you can see remnants of its horror roots. Throughout, the atmosphere is suffused with dread and uncertainty.
The meaning of this particular tale remains elusive, though it seems to be concerned with the nature of relationships and identity. And how linking your sense of self to another’s perception of you is rarely a good idea.
Unlike “Eternal Sunshine” or “Being John Malkovich,” Kaufman directs from his own script. The films he’s written as well as directed share a sense that their twisting, philosophically-minded narratives have escaped unfiltered, directly from his brain. He’s less concerned with narrative cohesion than cultivating a specific mood and tone. Here that mood is one of melancholy and loneliness. Even for a filmmaker known for his offbeat sensibilities, this feels like Kaufman’s least accessible film.
He’s molded Reid’s story into a Rorschach test of a movie, one where what a viewer gets from it is entirely dependent on what they bring to it. It’s not a feel-good movie, or one that gels immediately in the mind, but watching it makes for a viewing experience that’s undeniably like no other.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
(R), Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Now streaming on Netflix
Adam Lubitow is CITY's film critic. Feedback on this review can be directed to CITY's arts & entertainment editor, Rebecca Rafferty, at email@example.com.