This past couple of weeks seem to have been an exercise in watching films by creators with whom I have very mixed relationships. Christopher Nolan was the first, and Charlie Kaufman is the second. Having on one hand very much enjoyed the likes of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Anomalisa in the past, and on the other really disliking things like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, I went into Kaufman’s new Netflix project with absolutely no idea what side of the fence I was going to end up on.
Based on a 2016 novel by Iain Reid, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things tells the story of an unnamed woman (Jessie Buckley) who, despite harbouring reservations about her new relationship, agrees to accompany boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) on a trip to see his parents (played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Upon arrival, things immediately feel wrong, and they only get wronger as the narrative proceeds!
As it turns out, I’m much more on the John Malkovich, Adaptation side of the fence. Like everything that Charlie Kaufman touches, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is incredibly cerebral and thought provoking, but this falls very much in line with the examples of his work that are more enjoyable to talk about and analyse after the fact that actually watch.
I’ll start with the positives, because the film is not without them. Right from the first frame, the picture feels tense, uncomfortable, macabre and unsettling. There isn’t a single second of running time that doesn’t fill the viewer with some level of discomfort, and without the use of an overpowering horror score or cheap jump scares, this is a great achievement. It’s been a long time since I felt so uncomfortable watching a film, not for reasons of explicit vulgarity or graphic content, but simply for the uneasiness, eeriness and foreboding nature of story.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of my positive feelings towards I’m Thinking Of Ending Things are reserved for the first half of the film. There is a distinct point at around the halfway mark where many viewers will figure out exactly what is going on, and this revelation makes the home straight of the movie something of a chore to get through. The metaphors and symbolism are flying in all directions, and in an analytical, film studies class kind of way, it is fun to pick out certain shots, lines and techniques. From a purely cinematic enjoyment point of view, however, in my opinion the film grinds to a halt with its pacing and its intrigue. The whole thing is topped off with a final fifteen minutes that indulges in pretty much every type of dreamy schmeamy trope that I hate in psychological thrillers.
If I’m being completely honest, it’s the strength of the central performances that kept me most willing to continue with I’m Thinking Of Ending Things. As the unnamed girlfriend, Jessie Buckley continues to be completely awesome in everything that she does. At this point, she’s been on my radar for twelve years, and it’s so fun to see her going from strength to strength in a range of interesting projects. Very much the audience surrogate taking us through the uncomfortable weirdness of the film, Buckley doesn’t put a foot wrong for me. The performance gets stranger and stranger as the narrative progresses, but thankfully it remains engaging throughout.
As Jake, Jesse Plemons gives a much more nuanced performance than the surface of things might suggest. Without trying to give too much away, if you have the will, an interesting exercise might be to watch the film a second time and pay more attention to Plemons with the full context of the story in mind.
As Jake’s mother and father, Toni Collette and David Thewlis are agonisingly creepy and unsettling. There’s absolutely no doubt that the strongest portion of the film is parental visit, with Collette in particular turning up the freaky factor considerably. With this and Hereditary under her belt, it seems as though Toni Collette is carving out a little niche for herself in the real of the macabre, and I’m 100% here for it.
Overall, I think it’s appropriate to say that for me, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is a frustratingly obtuse film that will most likely keep casual viewers engaged thanks to its high quality performances. Even if you start to detach from the plot, the presence of the various characters will still keep you invested, that was my experience at least. The film is no doubt smart and an exercise in metaphor, but it’s very telling when you find yourself enjoying the various ‘break down’ articles written about a picture more than you enjoyed the actual picture itself.