I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Charlie Kaufman’s highly-anticipated third directorial effort, following 2008’s existential nightmare Synecdoche, New York and 2015’s stop-motion psychology comedy Anomalisa. It follows a woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) who take a trip to visit his parents (David Thewlis & Toni Collette). It is based on the novel of the same name by Iain Reid.
On the surface, you’d perhaps expect more from a Charlie Kaufman script, albeit one that is not an original, but it’s only when you start to watch it and dig into what he’s showing you that you really begin to understand…and then unravel.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is going to be divisive. It dropped on Netflix today (Friday 4th September 2020) and I’ve already seen the effects of a polarising film, the likes of which I last saw when the controversial Joker hit cinemas like a bullet train. Some hailed it as cinema’s latest masterpiece while others, myself included, condemned it as shallow and undeserved of the plaudits it received. Not to say that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is getting the exact same treatment, but the material is perfect for long conversations and disagreements between film fans. If this is your first Kaufman, including his writing efforts, you’re in for an experience. If this isn’t your first Kaufman, I would say that you roughly know what to expect (existential confusion and the dread of identity), but his latest stint behind the camera takes us to new places and then makes us wonder how we got there.
I’ll preface any discussion by saying that this will not be a spoiler review. I’m going to describe the essence of the film without going into the events. Honestly, I don’t think I could if I wanted to.
For a simple-sounding story about meeting a significant other’s parents, Kaufman really squeezes every last drop of potential from a premise like this. I haven’t read the source material so I can’t attest to the accuracy, but it seems as though he chose the perfect cast for this particular endeavour. They excite me a lot, so I’m going to ramble around them first.
First on the roster, Jessie Buckley, who has been dominating the screen for the past few years, first with her breakout role in Beast, then in a range of different projects such as her smash-hit turn in Wild Rose, her feisty performance in Misbehaviour, and appearing in the highly-lauded television mini-series Chernobyl. Her choice of projects couldn’t be more varied. She’s done an original movie-musical, a historical television show, independent films, and now she’s tackling what seems to be perhaps her meatiest role yet: the role of Young Woman in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. That’s not a spoiler, she’s literally credited as “Young Woman” for reasons that will become clear and unclear simultaneously, a pattern that seems to emerge in Kaufman’s work.
Buckley is absolutely sensational here. No surprises there, considering she’s marvellous in everything she touches, but she brings a mountainous range and gravitas to a challenging role. She has to play a lot of different things in this movie, and a lot of them at the same time. As is the norm with Kaufman, there’s a lot of arduous, rhythmic dialogue to chew on and she spouts it like a true pro. The way she can flicker in and out of complex emotions just to mentally whip-pan to the complete opposite end of the spectrum without missing a beat is truly masterful. She is nothing but a pleasure to watch, and her colossal amount of time on screen is always compelling, the mark of a true leading actress. Buckley is one of this decade’s brightest stars and her turn here is truly Oscar-worthy. The Buckley campaign begins now, everyone.
Playing potentially an even trickier role opposite her is Jesse Plemons as ‘Jake’, who also has a great deal to do, bouncing off The Young Woman incredibly well. Plemons is turning in some of his best work here, playing something that seems so straightforward but subsequently unravels and unfurls into something much more complex by the end. It’s hard to describe what Plemons does without going into spoiler territory, but it’s a beautifully controlled performance that deserves as much praise as that of Buckley, even if it’s not as outwardly showy. Plemons is juggling a lot and he never lets up, not even for a second which demonstrates Plemons’ range and talents perfectly.
I could not think of anyone else playing the roles of Jake’s parents, the unnamed ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’. David Thewlis and Toni Collette are an intriguing duo to pair together, but it works seamlessly. They have a sort of fragmented chemistry that aptly creates some beautiful moments of tension and fragility in their scenes together. Thewlis, re-teaming with Kaufman after being the lead voice role of Anomalisa, displays such an artful skill of knowing exactly how to play every moment and what a situation calls for that he’s a joy to watch, even when the material is unnerving, which is a lot of the time. His off-putting physicality really immerses you in the scene in the best way. Thewlis is nothing short of excellent in every frame.
Playing off him is the dynamic, versatile, yet still vastly under-appreciated somehow, Toni Collette. Anyone who knows what happens when Toni Collette sits at a dinner table will greatly enjoy her performance here. Collette often plays mothers quite iconically in films such as The Sixth Sense, The Way Way Back, and Little Miss Sunshine, but this is something that I’ve never seen her do before. She’s fragile yet grounded at the same time and it’s truly perplexing watching her work. It’s honestly exciting to witness in these peculiar moments of instability as she traverses a rickety through-line that never seems to go where you expect it to. Much like her screen husband Thewlis, Collette’s innate talent for physicality aids her performance beautifully, as well as her ability to truly command her voice and body to evoke anything she wants. It’s the control of a master of her craft, and she is a large part of creating the necessary tones and shades of all of her scenes. Even when she’s not on screen, sometimes you can hear little sounds and noises that only serve to make everything feel a lot more heightened in terms of how on-edge everything seems to be. Again, it’ll become more apparent what I mean when you see the film, but rest assured Collette is nothing less than extraordinary.
We have casting directors Jeanne McCarthy and Rori Bergman to thank for assembling this wonderful quartet of exceptional talents. McCarthy has worked with Kaufman before, assembling the dream team for Synecdoche, while Bergman has worked on projects like Private Life (2018) and my favourite show, The Americans. Capable hands provided nothing but the best for this endeavour and everything works.
And now let’s discuss the main man himself. Writer, Director, co-producer of this movie, Charlie Kaufman. The mere mention of his name provokes a simple response when discussing a new project: you know it’s going to be trippy, psychologically complex, and be flawlessly written. Well…check, check, check. And then some.
As a budding screenwriter, the script is something I tend to focus on the most during a film, making this film an absolute dream to watch. Kaufman presents these characters with a lot of philosophical, flowery discussion that would primarily come off as rambling and incoherent in another project. But I’m Thinking of Ending Things begins like this, with a hypnotic Buckley voiceover that acts like a seatbelt for the rest of the movie. You’re strapped in and you know exactly what to expect. The way the characters are written presents multiple opportunities for complexity within the dialogue and their topics of discussion. They’re accomplished, perhaps too intelligent for their own good, and often oppose each other. The Young Woman and Jake have a connection, that much is shown and described, but you can also see why she’s having doubts.
The title of the film comes from The Young Woman’s deliberations about terminating her relationship with Jake, but Kaufman doesn’t allow him to turn into an abusive, irritating stereotype who would make audiences yell at the screen for her to break up with him. He’s intelligent, has moments of thoughtfulness, but is often a lot for The Young Woman to handle, especially when she is already thinking of ending things. That’s one of the markers of how genius this script is, it never allows you to come to an easy conclusion about anything, not even things that you assume that you’re certain of.
As well as Kaufman’s writing ability, which has garnered him an Academy Award and an additional two nominations for writing, he displays a great deal of talent behind the camera, too. The camera placements and visuals are exquisite. The camera movements are often tied in with the thematics at hand. For example, there’s a small discussion between Jake and The Young Woman about programming within living creatures; Kaufman then proceeds to use the camera to move to locations before the characters even know to go there, showing the audience beforehand, then allowing the characters to draw those conclusions, as though there was no other option. Noticing those things really helps to amplify a film like this which appears so reliant on its dialogue. I have a lot of things written down in my post-viewing notes file on my phone that are just moments of visual trickery and semiotics within the film. It’s quite a long list, and Kaufman never fails at trying something new. There’s a particular sequence close to the end which is extremely riveting yet dichotomised with everything that has been delivered thus far. It’s jarring, unsettling, but nonetheless gripping to watch. And I was brought to tears by the finale though I’m not even sure why.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a demonstration of metaphorical identity amongst a tsunami of other things, a piece of film that solidifies Kaufman as a master. Highly cerebral, purposefully standoffish, yet has a thick emotional core that wraps itself around the narrative and doesn’t let go. Emotional surrealism working at its finest, Kaufman has made a film full of meaningful misdirects, beautiful thematic work, and a haunting climax that really will stay with me forever.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available on Netflix now.