Ever since Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman has established himself as a writer with signature traits, such as the surrealism of looking at someone else’s worldview, and the honest highs and lows of a romantic relationship. These ideas come back time and time again throughout all his works, from the warmth of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the melancholia of Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. You think that after twenty-plus years that Kaufman would become repetitive. Yet with any new feature, he continues to surprise and more importantly, just baffle us.
Based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Iain Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Kaufman’s latest directorial feature. The movie centers on an unnamed woman (Jessie Buckley), who contemplates on ending her seven-week relationship with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). Before she does so, Jake proposes that she meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) out on their remote farm. As the four are going through the awkward situation of first impressions, something more disturbing starts unfolding; is it Jake, is it his parents, or is it herself wrestling with her own fragmented reality?
If you have seen a number of sites that attempt at describing what kind of film this is, descriptions like psychological horror and thriller crop up. With Kaufman’s scripts, you can never categorize them in one specific genre as they tend to be a mishmash of numerous genres, resulting in works that initially are confusing, but benefit more through multiple viewings. No doubt there will be a section of the audience that are just not going to be on board with the ambiguous narrative of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. This is certainly if you’re not used to Kaufman’s surrealism.
The closest genre you can pinpoint I’m Thinking of Ending Things would be horror as the set-up of a young woman awkwardly meeting her boyfriend’s parents will be familiar to horror fans. In fact, before they even arrive at the farm, twenty minutes on the drive to the farm, you have the couple talking in the car where they discuss things like movies and poetry. The audience can sense the emotional distance between each other.
As this long conversation goes on, Jessie Buckley’s character goes through her own conversation in her head as although she thinks Jake is a good person, she feels the relationship isn’t going anywhere. But is it because of her boyfriend or her own issues? This sequence alone showcases how extraordinary Buckley is as she can go from cold monologues to emotional breakouts.
Once we reach the farm, the creep factor of I’m Thinking of Ending Things raises, not least with the appearance of Jake’s parents, played brilliantly by David Thewlis and Toni Collette. Neither are strangers to horror cinema and both embrace the awkwardness with a touch of horror. Often with Kaufman’s scripts, he tends to write his stories through mostly a singular perspective. Here, the narrative here keeps shifting hands and the audience does not know whose side to be on – especially when Jake may have some darker agenda. Known for having a bumbling naivety like in season two of Fargo, Jesse Plemons plays someone whose more broken and unnerving personality gives him a slight edge.
With most of I’m Thinking of Ending Things taking place in the confines of Jake’s family farm and the car, shooting in a square-shaped aspect ratio adds to the claustrophobia of the whole thing. And yet, whatever temptation of horror there is, the film throws a curveball with the clashing of fragmented realities. In one key setting, the audience initially thinks it is going to be one character and ends up being something else. Meanwhile, Kaufman gets to experiment with the likes of hand-drawn animation and a ballerina performance. Whatever message you can gain from its baffling conclusion is anybody’s guess, which can be frustrating.