Our Take: 4/5 Stars
Netflix’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is many things, but straightforward is not one of them.
Directed and written by Charlie Kaufman — best known as the screenwriter of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — and based on the novel of the same title by Iain Reid, the film is a kaleidoscope of time and memory. The film is fractured, it is difficult to tell dream and reality apart and so dense that it demands a second or third viewing.
Watching “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” without any preexisting knowledge of the plot is a deeply perplexing experience. Finishing it feels like waking up from a fevered dream.
Every scene, word, gesture and set piece is laden with meaning that is overlooked during a first viewing; it is a film made for rewatching.
Kaufman’s carefully choreographed shots, reminiscent in some ways of Wes Anderson, have a hypnotic, almost claustrophobic effect on the viewer.
Jessie Buckley’s (“Chernobyl”) Lucy is the ultimate unreliable narrator as the audience begins to question whether or not she actually exists. Buckley is brilliant in the role, bringing warmth and humanity to an otherwise confusing and confused character.
Opposite her is Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad”) as the awkward, tender-hearted, terrifying Jake. Without giving away too much of the plot, Plemons does a remarkable job of portraying an ostensibly innocuous character who takes on more and more weight as the movie goes on.
The movie begins with a young woman, presumably named Lucy — or Lucille or Louise — who is setting out on a snowy road trip with her boyfriend, Jake. The couple, who have been dating for a month, or six weeks, or seven (Lucy can’t remember how many), are on their way to meet Jake’s parents for the first time at the farm he grew up in. But Lucy, who narrates the movie, tells us that she is “thinking of ending things” with Jake.
She can’t put a finger on it exactly, but she knows that something is deeply and horribly wrong.
The genius of the movie is a permeating sense of wrongness that settles in, at first subtly, and then more and more obviously. It only intensifies as Lucy and Jake arrive at the farmhouse and meet his parents. From there, the plot spirals into a series of increasingly odd and disturbing events that renders time, age, place, age, and reality meaningless: Jake’s parents are both old and young; Lucy finds her paintings in the basement and her poetry in a book; she is described alternately as a physicist, a painter, a poet, a waitress. She can not seem to stop manically laughing.
Her inner dialogue becomes more and more discombobulated.
The ever-more unsettling events that the protagonist experiences are interspersed throughout the film with shots of a janitor going about his day with heavy, inexplicable significance. After Lucy and Jake finally leave the farmhouse to head home, the film only gets more weird and more disjointed. Their dialogue bounces furiously from topic to topic, sometimes affectionate, sometimes angry, bristling with all manner of literary and cultural references as Lucy loses control of her narrative — if she ever had it.
The film reaches its peculiar climax at Jake’s old highschool, occupied only by the janitor sweeping its halls in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. The pivotal scene is a beautiful pas de deux performed to Jay Wadley’s dreamy, melancholic score that tells the story of what might have been between Jack and Lucy. The ballet is the key to a nearly indecipherable plot and a rare glimpse of light amid the remaining two hours of morbidity.
Buckley and Plemons’ beautifully subtle performances are complemented by Toni Collette (“Hereditary”) and David Thewlis (“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”), who play Jake’s parents. Both Collette and Thewlis are superb, bringing squirming discomfort and understated horror to their scenes.
Ultimately, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” can be interpreted in two different ways.
It can be viewed as an irredeemable waste of time: an utterly discombobulated, meaningless film with no observable plot and an incomprehensible ending that makes less sense with every passing moment.
Or it can be interpreted as Kaufman’s freakish exploration of one man’s experience with loneliness and hopelessness, punctuated by grim reflections on time, existence, and meaning that will resonate long after the credits roll.
Give it a watch and decide which it will be.