Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (Netflix, 9.4) is a quietly surreal and spooky relationship film between…well, that’s the question. Nominally between withdrawn 30something “Jake” (Jesse Plemons) and his perceptive but unnamed girlfriend (Jessie Buckley), but also involving Jake’s oddball parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis) and the rural Oklahoma town and farmhouse where Jake grew up.
More eerie than scary and captured in bluish gray hues by Cold War dp Lukasz Zal, it goes from oddly unnerving and “wait a minute” to “wait, what?” And not incidentally because of an allegiance with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein‘s “Oklahoma!“, and without a single shock cut.
I was going to describe it as a macabre Meet The Parents but naahh. Kaufman’s film isn’t really “like” anything but itself and the same-titled 2016 Iain Reid book it’s based upon. But if you insist Buckley has the Ben Stiller role.
It’s well constructed and pays off with a twist, but for me I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a subdued horror fantasy about the grayness and drudgery of downish, diminished lives in gothic Middle America…propelled by inventive, oddly compelling performances from the four leads…a relationship flick that has nowhere to go but into the cellar of despair and “the pit of man’s fears” a la Rod Serling.
For me, this is a film that asks “how much did you hate the tortures of high school and your dreary upbringing? And can you ever escape those influences?” On one level Thewlis and Collette could be horror-film characters but on another they’re everyone’s mom-and-dad nightmare, everything you want to escape from but at the same time are drawn to or at least stuck with.
Have I mentioned that Kaufman applies his low-key surrealism with remarkable confidence? But it doesn’t give in to that. It builds into something else.
Being somewhat familiar with Reid’s novel, I was aware going in that “something else” alludes to the realm of unreliable narration and characters having the same thoughts and in fact being even closer than the reader might first imagine, etc. But to me this aspect seemed more distracting than illuminating, and so I chose to more or less ignore it.
Does the film deliver too much in the way of Kaufman-esque downerism? Not this time. The same currents of resignation and despair and self-loathing that permeated (to varying degrees) Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Synecdoche and Anomalilsa? Yes, but this time with an extra dimension.
I’m talking about a surreal third-act blending with the lore of “Oklahoma!” and particularly the dream sequences and Agnes de Mille’s choreography and how it all meshes into a final mind-bending whole with a snow-covered car and frozen sheep, a dead pig or two and a sad 70something high-school janitor…that’s all I’m saying.
I felt disturbed, transported, creeped out and yet oddly amazed. How many films are this unusual, this creepy, this what-the-fuck and yet strangely harmonized?
It’s a melancholy dreamscape piece that goes for broke and swings for the fences and pulls off an amazing synthesis.