'I'm Thinking Of Ending Things': Charlie Kaufman's confounding masterpiece
Kaufman's surreal new film features a woman reluctantly going to visit her boyfriend's family, on a farm. That may sound normal, but it's a proudly, profoundly weird picture
All farms look the same. This is mentioned and agreed upon early in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, where a young man drives a young woman to the farmhouse where his parents live, even though the statement is obviously inaccurate, and a wild generalization. It’s like saying paintings of landscapes look the same. Yet, to one used to apartment blocks in cities—or to one who prefers movie posters to paintings—it rings true. Just as this internalized, exploratory film does. Despite its extreme specificity, the tormented relationships at its heart echo fears and fixations of our own. All families look the same. All relationships look the same.
Nothing, however, looks quite like a Kaufman film. The most distinctive English-language screenwriter since Woody Allen, Kaufman takes a screwdriver to the human condition and uses his films to prise mankind apart to see what makes it tick.
This new film, based on a novel of the same name by Iain Reid and out now on Netflix, is a characteristically confounding affair from the man behind Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Anomalisa and Synecdoche, New York. As Kaufman had shown with the staggeringly original Adaptation—where twin Nicolas Cages battle to bring an un-filmable book to life—there is no such thing as a straightforward journey from page to screen. Here, he turns a slim novel into the cinematic equivalent of a pop-up book: one where everything is folded deceptively into place and nothing is as it seems.
A woman goes to meet a man’s family. The road is paved with doubt and dread. It recalls Jordan Peele’s Get Out—where a black man goes to visit his white girlfriend’s family, and their racism is viewed through horror-movie tropes—but inverts the conflict as, despite forever staring out of the window, this woman keeps looking inward. Getting into the car, she voices her disenchantment in her head. The man turns, as if hearing what she thinks. Watching them, we can’t get past that sticky, titular thought. It gets in.
The road seems as unending as their conversation. They sound intellectual but inconsistent. The man, Jake, recites William Wordsworth, telling her Wordsworth wrote many poems about an idealized woman named Lucy—and we assume that’s the woman’s name, though it changes as we go on, or Jake keeps changing it. Her profession changes. Her interests change. She’s first writing a paper on dentistry, later on film theory. He claims to know only a few musicals, then rattles off names big and obscure. She launches into a poem she has written, a raw, painful piece that cuts him to the core, yet the poem may not be her own.
She does look like a Lucy, though. Bright, competitive, eager. Like Lucy van Pelt from the Peanuts comic strip, a second before pulling the football out from under Charlie Brown. He’s less impressive. He looks like a poorly sketched Matt Damon, a Matt Damon who never learnt to shave. She is played by Jessie Buckley, so good in Chernobyl, and Jake is Jesse Plemons, so good in the second season of Fargo, and it is no accident that Kaufman has a Jessie and a Jesse playing these overlapping, intersecting parts. They are not characters as much as mirrors.
At the farmhouse, contradictions multiply. Jake warns that there isn’t likely to be much food, but moments after he shows her where maggot-infested pigs had died, a giant glazed ham is served for dinner. His parents, played by the remarkable Toni Collette and David Thewlis, are friendly, but their ages oscillate dramatically, one moment to the next. The girl herself goes from Lucy to Lucia to Louise, from a painter to a physicist to a gerontologist. Jimmy, the family dog, only shows up whenever she asks about him. “I like pictures where you know what you are looking at," says Jake’s father, dismissing abstract art. This temporal kaleidoscope would not be his kind of picture.
Every now and again, the film shifts. We go from Jake and the young woman to a high school, where a silver-haired old janitor shuffles around, sometimes watching students rehearse musicals, sometimes watching cheesy romantic films with his lunch. Is he someone the characters know, someone the characters are imagining, or vice versa?
Collette, boasting about the pin Jake won for “Diligence" and forever getting confused between “genus" and “genius", is amazing, while Thewlis plays up the weirdness, memorably forgetting the last word of a proverb—in a way that the proverb loses the need for the last word. Plemons, good-natured at first but pedantic and stubborn as the film wears on, is terrific both as a man giving himself points for keeping up with an intelligent woman and as the man exasperated by her intelligence.
Buckley is a marvel. When Jake snaps at his folks, she turns to ice, unsure about her role in this familial picture. Then she is perplexed by a childhood picture of hers—or is it his? Later she shifts shape more dynamically, going from tipsy giggler to cigarette-wielding Pauline Kael, eviscerating a film Jake loves with an argument so incontrovertible (taken verbatim from Kael’s review) that it intimidates him into submission. As a woman under the influence of watching a movie over and over, she knows her mind.
He might not. Does my interpretation of this deviously clouded film count as a spoiler? If you think it may, skip this paragraph. As it eventually ravels, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things leaves us with the suggestion that the young woman might be a fiction, an idealized woman, made up in a man’s head but outclassing him even in his own dreams. By this reading, she is a fantasy with free will, a dream girl with independent perspective. A make-believe believer.
At one point, the woman quotes an Oscar Wilde quotation—about quotations. This is a film that turns in on itself, and, in turn, on us. The atmospherics are eerie and the detailing exquisite, clues strewn around Kaufman’s carefully cluttered landscape. Sometimes, for a line or two, one actor is replaced by another. The camera deceives: We assume we are following the woman’s point of view as she looks around a room, till we observe ourselves looking at her from a distance. Nothing is accidental.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a contemplation of an ending, not an ending in itself—which, as the woman says, demands energy and decisiveness. It is about love and suicide, ageing and repression, familiarity and contempt. It is a film to watch over and over, not only to identify Kaufman’s meticulously arranged references, but to consider what resonates with you, and why. What doesn’t kill you, makes you. It’s not just farms, families, or relationships. All generalizations look the same.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.