Netflix’s ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ is another dizzying triumph by Charlie Kaufman


All film criticism is personal. Every review requires revealing something of a critic’s own experiences, their knowledge, their tastes, their values, their interests and obsessions.

But writing about a Charlie Kaufman movie feels, at least for this critic, even more personal than most. It feels deeper and more specific, like really digging into this movie might reveal more than I’d like to you about how I see and understand the world.

Like his 2008 masterpiece Synecdoche, New York, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is dense with surreal details and cryptic meaning. It takes a dead-simple premise — a woman (Jessie Buckley) goes with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to his childhood home so she can meet his parents for the first time — and sprawls out in all directions. It burrows under the surface, wriggles into hidden corners, tiptoes into the basement, winds up the walls, and stares right at you through the screen. 

It’s doing so much, and about so much, all at once, that deciding where to start talking about it becomes its own sort of Rorschach test. Is it a film about identity? Aging? Gender? Relationships? Creativity? It’s about all of those themes and more, and each of these is worth exploring in due time, but which one pings your radar first and hardest probably tells you something about what you’re most sensitive to. 

Charlie Kaufman is better than perhaps any living filmmaker at literalizing the subjective experience of existence. 

Or maybe it doesn’t. One of the things I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about is the way we consume art, absorb it into our minds and personalities until we can’t tell where we end and someone else’s ideas begin, and then reflect it back out onto the world as a portrait of ourselves. 

The film itself is made up of bits and pieces of other works of art that the characters have claimed as their own, understood to be their own opinions and desires and creations. The woman recites a poem she wrote; we later learn it’s actually a poem by Eva H.D., from her book Rotten Perfect Mouth. As we understand the situation in the movie, this isn’t the protagonist committing an act of plagiarism. It’s that thing where you come up with what you think is a brilliant original concept, and later realize you were just repeating something you heard someone else say. 

So I’m maybe — definitely — probably almost certainly — overstating the case about how much what you think of I’m Thinking of Ending Things says about who you are as a person. This film would caution that while it’s natural to over-identify with a piece of culture that speaks to you, that doesn’t mean it’s ideal. You need to be something other than the things you like.

Besides, lots of people won’t find anything at all to react to in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It’s not a movie that’s interested in trying to get on anyone else’s wavelength but its own, and if that’s not where you are, then you and it can go your separate ways with no hard feelings. The film has zero interest in clarification or catharsis. It’s not a puzzle so much as it is a box of random shit that you’re meant to assemble yourself. Into what, well, that’s up to you.


Image: Mary Cybulski / NETFLIX

The movie is also a really uncomfortable watch, in the way a horror movie can be a really uncomfortable watch. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is designed to keep you off-kilter. The frames are crowded with so much busy detail that it’s overwhelming. The camera disorients your sense of time by anticipating or lagging behind the characters or cutting away at odd moments. The performances are dialed down to almost nothing, or dialed up to piercing volumes. 

That they nevertheless feel like coherent characters, despite their exaggerations and un-stuck-in-time-ness, is an impressive feat of acting. Toni Collette, who plays the boyfriend’s mom, is even more unsettling here than she was in Hereditary. There, she was a woman pushed to the outer limits of grief and stress. Her extreme behavior was obvious and explicable. 

Here, it’s all the more disquieting because the sense of wrongness is clear but the cause is not. Her reactions to her son’s girlfriend are appropriate in theory — a self-deprecating crack here, a welcoming giggle there — but read all off in practice. Her smile is so broad it becomes a grimace, her laugh so loud you want to back away slowly. If you’ve ever found yourself trying way too hard to impress someone, maybe you recognize yourself in her, or in the too-bright way the girlfriend returns that energy.

A friend of mine said they knew the feeling. They said that was what it felt like in their own head all the time, that sense of cold-sweat anxiety and naked desperation. Because that’s what I’m Thinking of Ending Things does: It reorganizes reality so it feels truer than objective truth. Kaufman’s gift is that he’s better than perhaps any living filmmaker at literalizing the subjective experience of existence. 

Netflix's 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' is another dizzying triumph by Charlie Kaufman

Image: Mary Cybulski / NETFLIX

The parents age and de-age and age again and de-age again over the course of the evening. The characters’ costumes keep changing, so subtly that you’re not sure at first if you’re imagining things. A janitor, whose connection to the central couple remains mysterious until the end (and maybe even then), seems to be watching them make out in their car. The thrill and the terror of the movie is that you truly never know what’s going to come next. It could be a dying cartoon pig walking a naked man down a hallway, or an ice-cold burn on the work of Robert Zemeckis, or a perfectly mundane conversation about the importance of tire chains in a snowstorm.

There’s no one key that will slide all the pins neatly into place and unlock the whole thing. It doesn’t even seem there is a key.

There’s no one key that will slide all the pins neatly into place and unlock the whole thing. It doesn’t even seem there is a key. You’re just meant to experience I’m Thinking of Ending Things, turning over the characters’ musings on hope and death (“It’s a uniquely human fantasy that things will get better,” one says darkly) or wondering why you’re so moved by a wordless ten-minute dance break in an empty school. The surreal touches feel random, but they aren’t; they’re expressing something about what it’s like to live in his brain. Or yours. 

Myself, I saw I’m Thinking of Ending Things first and foremost as a film about identity, about how impossible it is to truly “be yourself” when your concept of “yourself” is tangled up in the art you’ve admired, the roles you’re expected to play, the judgments others make of you, the way your parents raised you, the people you used to be, the people you might become some day, and a million other things that have blended into your understanding of your own psyche. It’s an idea I stress about a lot even when I’m not watching a Charlie Kaufman movie, which is probably why I reached for it first here. And now you know a little something more about me. 

There’s a song in Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, barely heard, about how no one will truly know and love you for everything you are, because you have to hide away parts of yourself to make yourself seem worthy of love. But like that movie before it, I’m Thinking of Ending Things gives us the chance to know ourselves, and each other, a little bit better. If art has a purpose, I think it’s whatever Kaufman’s doing here.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is now streaming on Netflix.





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