I'm Thinking of Ending Things

 

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The celebrated scenarist Charlie Kaufman explores the Cinema of the Absurd with perhaps his weirdest movie yet.

   

I'm Thinking of Ending Things  

Being Charlie Kaufman: David Thewlis, Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, with Toni Collette's back

 

Netflix has become a natural platform for filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman. The streaming giant has the money to build its kudos bank, thus giving carte blanche to established creative forces like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. Netflix needs the prestige, all the better to justify its money-spinning contracts with Will Smith, Adam Sandler and Ryan Reynolds. Kaufman, who won an Oscar for his screenplay to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2005) and was nominated for both Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), is an astonishingly original artist. But as with all creative mavericks, a steadying hand is usually a good idea. When Kaufman made his directorial debut in 2008 with Synecdoche, New York, the film was a box-office bomb which, considering its self-indulgent sweep, was hardly surprising. Yet the celebrated film critic Roger Ebert claimed it to be the best movie of the decade. Or maybe it was just pretentious – as well as being completely bewildering and downright depressing.

 

Well, Kaufman’s pictures are nothing if not personal and will seduce or alienate according to one’s taste. One doesn’t so much follow a Charlie Kaufman movie as dream it, and you will probably continue dreaming about it for days. He doesn’t abide by the rules and his latest, an adaptation of Iain Reid’s literary psychological thriller, is no exception.

 

It would be easy to pluck out any one moment of madness from I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but that would be unfair to the film’s ability to shock and surprise. Starring Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley as an eccentric couple on a road trip to meet the former’s parents, the film starts on a relatively sane note. They have been dating for six weeks, although, to Buckley’s Lucy – or is it Louise? – it seems like much longer. She is bright, articulate, cine-literate and a poet, although she hasn’t heard of Wordsworth. He is sensitive, smart, curious and sweet, but wears his knowledge on his sleeve. Yet already things are beginning to seem anomalous. They are going for dinner, although Lucy has already expressed a desire to be home later that night and the car journey is taking hours. She needs to be up early the next morning and before they arrive at the farmhouse of Jake’s parents, it is getting dark – and snowing hard. As Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) waves enthusiastically from the upstairs window, Jake first takes Lucy on a tour of the farm to view some dead sheep. But when Jake and Lucy do finally pitch up at the front door, his parents are nowhere to be seen. There are other incongruities, such as the older couple’s border terrier, Jimmy, that keeps on appearing out of nowhere covered in snow. Immediately thoughts of Get Out – or maybe Meet the Parents – start to surface, but this is strictly Kaufman’s own animal. Let’s just say that the ensuing dinner is one of the most bizarre on record and yet, just somehow, within the realms of credibility. Jake’s father, played by David Thewlis, retains his English accent and brandishes his philistinism with agonising indiscretion. He is a creep, and Mom is a mad woman. Or are they just good ol’ rural folk?

 

Kaufman has gone on record to say that “I really do support anybody’s interpretation” of his film, which sounds like a get-out clause if ever there was one. As to be expected, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is beautifully made and you can’t witness better acting from performers like Plemons and Buckley (once again she exhibits an uncanny knack at accents). It might help if you know the cultural minutiae that Kaufman rubs in your face, not least a passing knowledge of the oeuvre of John Cassavetes. The name-checking is a little heavy-handed, although one can but admire a man – Jake – who confesses a liking for musicals like The Flower Drum Song and Wicked. There are a few shards of humour, and the odd surprise, such as when David Thewlis announces that “Billy Crystal is a nancy.” One suspects that much of Kaufman is filtered through his own characters and that, if it’s all one big joke, he’s the only one who understands the punch line. In the third act, it gets really, really weird, which may delight cineastes of a certain stripe, but for the average viewer it is liable to seem more like a display of academic onanism.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd, Colby Minifie, Ashlyn Alessi, Abby Quinn, and Oliver Platt (voice only).

 

Dir Charlie Kaufman, Pro Stephanie Azpiazu, Anthony Bregman, Robert Salerno and Charlie Kaufman, Screenplay Charlie Kaufman, Ph Łukasz Żal, Pro Des Molly Hughes, Ed Robert Frazen, Music Jay Wadley, Costumes Melissa Toth, Dialect coach Charise Greene and Charlotte Fleck.

 

Likely Story/Projective Testing Service-Netflix.

134 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 4 September 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.