I’m Thinking of Ending Things, like most of director Charlie Kaufman’s work is deceptive. This adaptation of Iain Reid’s acclaimed novel takes a surreal approach to examining the human condition. Surrealism is what makes Kaufman … Kaufman. Anyone who has seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich or Synecdoche New York can certainly attest to that. One of the most challenging aspects of this film is attempting to place it in a category. Kaufman films defy classification. They exist. His movies are not for the average filmgoer. Most will flip the film on and see a story about a woman meeting her boyfriend’s parents on a snow day, which turns into a dangerous night. However, nothing is ever that simple with Kaufman.
While the film uses the loose framework of this meeting to give it structure, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about the abstract elements that come with being human. In Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Kaufman tackles pushing through our angst as we pursue lifelong connections. Even as they would erase the pain from people’s subconscious, there was nothing that could eliminate the imprint it would leave on them. This quote sums up I’m Thinking of Ending Things, “Other animals live in the present. Humans cannot. So they invented hope.”
The film centers around a woman played by Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose). The audience never gets a handle on who she is because her name seemingly changes throughout the film. One minute, she’s Yvonne, and other times, she’s referred to as Lucy. Her background story seems to pivot every which way. It gives audiences a sense of disorientation and left me wondering if this whole sequence is perhaps from her memory. It wouldn’t be Kaufman if the film didn’t cause some sense of bewilderment.
For starters, what does the word “ending” mean in this title? There are undoubtedly references made to David Foster Wallace in the film, which raises questions if the ending referenced is committing suicide. The argument about “A Woman Under Influence” only further supports these suspicions. The idea that Kaufman’s latest is about a woman thinking about ending a relationship with Jake (played by Jesse Plemons) seems way too simplistic.
Kaufman further disorients audiences by seamlessly weaving Buckley’s inner and out monologue into the narrative. Certain moments seem like they happen in real-time, but mostly I’m Thinking of Ending Things feels like it happened in the past. The tight shots and emphasis on the wind during the storm reinforce that. We tend to remember specific aspects of a given day and not every single moment and detail.
Buckley and Plemons are lovely in the film and come off extremely relatable even in the oddest sequences. Toni Collette and David Thewlis play Jake’s parents in the movie. They come off as typical parents, but like most Kaufman pieces, that changes rather quickly. Without warning, the film begins to show his parents at different stages in their life (from old to young and vice-versa). Could our female lead and likely the narrator of this story be reliving these moments from her life? I think I could be confusing things.
I’m Think of Ending Things is Kaufman’s most complex work to date. What’s great is that being on Netflix allows cinephiles a chance to rewatch it multiple times to dive deeper into this piece. It seems excessive, but most will need that to grasp what occurred. Even then, it might still be a bit unclear. Perhaps that is the point. Trying to understand fully I’m Thinking of Ending Things is as foolish as understanding the abstract elements of the human condition. Happiness, sadness, and time will go on whether we want it to or not.