Charlie Kaufman’s latest film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a mind-bending psychological drama about a young woman wrestling with the growing desire to break up with her boyfriend. The opening scenes see Lucy (Jessie Buckley) consider “ending things” even as she embarks on an extensive road trip to meet Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) parents.
Viewers expecting “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” to conform to psychological horror conventions will be in for quite a surprise. While Iain Reid’s source novel is a meet-the-parents horror story reliant on thrilling yet genre-typical twists, Kaufman uses Reid’s plot as the basis for a less traditional exploration into the innate human fears of loneliness and decrepitude.
Kaufman’s work often has oneiric qualities, but “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” feels less like a dream than a prolonged argument with one’s inner monologue. The first hour of the film is uneasy and jarring: Initially, it comes across as a pretentious self-portrait, examining Kaufman as the troubled artist. However, Lucy and Jake soon develop an authentic interiority as the protracted drive provides a venue for the characters to discuss both the mundane and the philosophical.
The editing is likewise off-putting at first. Conversations are cut so that there is either too little or too much dead air and reaction shots that often don’t sync up, emotionally or temporally. Kaufman sees traditional continuity rules as mere suggestions, sabotaging the viewer’s dependence on Hollywood editing for orientation. As the story unravels further, however, genuine dread creeps into Kaufman’s incongruous staging of the action and keeps the viewer gripped in a manner that perfectly justifies the unsettling feeling of the early scenes.
The cast, all around, is excellent. Buckley’s central performance cycles through a number of personalities, each of which are portrayed with great restraint. Toni Collette and David Thewlis are unhinged as Jake’s idiosyncratic, sometimes creepy parents. And Plemons excellently evokes Jake’s compulsive need to use Lucy as proof that he is approval-worthy, as well as his juvenile jealousy of her accomplishments. Despite the surreal treatment of the overall story, scenes where Jake is passive-aggressive and insecure about his intelligence come across as incredibly real.
As Lucy stretches to accommodate Jake’s idealized image of her, she finds herself losing her true identity. The basis of Lucy and Jake’s relationship is strangely fluid: The details of their meet cute, Lucy’s profession and even Lucy’s name (sometimes she’s “Louisa” or “Lucia”) are in constant flux. Oscillating between doubts about the relationship’s long-term viability and a fear that she and Jake are in fact suited for each other, Lucy confronts the societal and cinematic traditions that have instilled her with reluctance to commit to the breakup.
Like Kaufman’s past scripts, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” plays with the boundary between fiction and reality. It doesn’t go as far as “Adaptation,” a meta-cinematic exploration of Kaufman’s malfunctioning creative process and his inability to adapt the film’s source material, but “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is nonetheless full of intertextual references ranging from William Wordsworth to David Foster Wallace to the problematic lyrics of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”
In one of the film’s best scenes, Lucy responds to Jake’s superficial recommendation of John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” by quoting legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s scathing review. Buckley effortlessly lapses into Kael’s distinctive manner of speech, emasculating Jake with sardonic, well-reasoned criticism directly out of Kael’s 1974 article. This scene works not only as commentary on Cassavetes’ and the film’s legacy, but also reiterates Kaufman’s long-standing questions about creativity and originality.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is intricately layered and atmospheric, but on first viewing, Kaufman’s unpredictable detours can be frustrating. Still, there is more than enough originality in Kaufman’s complex and beautifully rendered ideas to justify a rewatch. The first time around, much of the charm comes from deciphering — or getting lost in — the film’s intriguing story, but a second viewing may free the viewer to focus on the characters’ careful writing and portrayal.
With “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Kaufman rejects the easy gratification that comes with resolvable dilemmas. Instead, he serves up a film that is something of a puzzle — solving it can be frustrating, but will ultimately lead to greater satisfaction.