by Jack Miller ’21
Charlie Kaufman, writer of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Adaptation.,” and “Being John Malkovich” and director of “Synecdoche, New York” and “Anomalisa,” has made a career out of finding humanity in the surreal with the offbeat and often perplexing stories he crafts. His new film, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” follows a similar trajectory as his previous works, once again concerning itself with exploring existential ideas through unconventional means. The film, based off of Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, tells the deceptively simple story of Young Woman, played by Jessie Buckley, a mysterious—you guessed it—young woman accompanying her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents at their remote farmhouse. What begins as a simple story about the anxieties of meeting a significant other’s parents quickly evolves into a complex labyrinth of ideas and images that acts as a playground for Kaufman to explore many of his own ideas and artistic concepts.
Whereas his previous works thrived off of it, Kaufman’s latest is suffocated by its own eccentricity. The film gets lost in its ambition, sacrificing the emotional interiority of his previous films for a mess of in-your-face oddities and half-baked ideas. The first half is an engaging mystery that manages to balance wry humor with a creeping sense of dread as the film slowly reveals the direction it’s heading. Once that direction becomes clear, however, the film loses all of its steam, dropping the alluring atmospherics and instead opting for a stream of mishandled—albeit creative—scenes full of stilted dialogue and an abrupt closing act that attempts to explain the core of the film’s story. Fascinating and affecting concepts are strewn throughout, but the film feels less interested in developing those and more in confusing the audience as much as possible. The film constantly invites viewers to sift through its pieces, but it doesn’t feel like there’s all that much under the surface worth finding.
Though it disappoints from a narrative perspective, there’s still plenty to enjoy about “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” The first hour is very good—Kaufman’s surreal humor shines and complements the unnerving atmosphere perfectly. It wouldn’t be as funny without such strong performances; Buckley and Plemons are fantastic leads, but Toni Colette and David Thewlis, who play Jake’s oddball parents, are the most entertaining part of the film. Kaufman’s formal decisions are for the most part effective and interesting—jagged editing, ominous sound design, and claustrophobic mise-en-scène all help to create a uniquely unsettling tone. Although the gloomy and existential path the latter half of the film pursues never really finds its footing, it’s never boring, as it’s constantly trying out new things and heading in different directions.
While far from being Kaufman’s strongest work, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a fascinating film and one that is sure to be loved by many. It’s certainly not for everyone, but most will at least find something to enjoy while deciphering this surreal puzzle.