Charlie Kaufman is the master of introspective, metatextual movies. From his screenwriting work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation, to pulling double-duty as writer and director on Anomalisa and Synecdoche, New York, there's a meticulous, deliberate feel to every plot point and monologue. I'm Thinking of Ending Things, his latest writer/director undertaking for Netflix, is no different. Kaufman uses every trick up his sleeve, including the streaming medium itself, to his benefit.
The majority of I'm Thinking of Ending Things takes place in a car. It's not a road trip movie but instead uses the car setting to amplify how claustrophobic being in a relationship can be. During these driving scenes, the conversation never goes much of anywhere, but that's where so many powerful monologues and tension lies.
The plot of the film is difficult to fit into a two-sentence blurb on an info screen, but once all the magical realism and metaphor are stripped away, it's a movie about a woman meeting her boyfriend's parents and then exploring his old high school. The plot is merely a vehicle for the true transformation of the film, watching a young woman with no fixed name go from resentful girlfriend to curious observer to her true identity.
For the Kaufman uninitiated, he has a few signature calling cards he goes back to often, especially in his directorial works. For example, he loves playing with the concept of performance, whether it's puppetry in Being John Malkovich or screenwriting in Adaptation. He also loves to use abnormal psychology and delusion. In Synecdoche, New York, the main character's surname is Cotard, a reference to Cotard delusion. His other directorial work, Anomalisa, began as a play he wrote under the name Francis Fregoli, a reference to another delusion.
Knowing that, it should be obvious nothing is as it seems in this film. When the narrator and her boyfriend Jake finally meet his parents, everything begins to distort. We see Jake's parents not only as they are, but as they were, and as they will be. She experiences an entire lifetime of living alongside them all at once. This is only heightened by cuts to an elderly high school janitor as he lives his day to day life, seemingly unrelated to the young lovers' storyline.
Jessie Buckley is given a star turn in the leading role, playing a constantly shifting and changing character who lapses into poetry and Pauline Kael movie reviews without a second thought. Jesse Plemons, though bumbling, is brilliant as Jake. Toni Collette and David Thewlis, playing Jake's parents, bring that harebrained edge that only dips a toe into comedic.
All this unease and confusion builds to a reveal at the end, but it's a reveal that could pass you by without notice. That's where Kaufman plays with the form. Were this a theatrical release, viewers would pay to see the film, then spend days or weeks picking apart what they saw. With Netflix, however, a streaming audience can just pick up the remote and go back to the beginning — or rewatch the bizarre song and dance numbers that punctuate I'm Thinking of Ending Things.
The film ends with a musical number, but that's not intended to be the end of the viewing experience. There are so many moments, slippers, a pin, a painting, that beg for a rewatch. It's worth noting this film is an adaptation of a book, a medium with the same ability to instantly go back to the beginning after reaching the end.
Without spoiling anything, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a brilliant and beautiful dissection of delusion and loneliness that takes quite a bit of excavation but is worth every effort. Kaufman movies always have different interpretations to everyone, and that's especially fitting here. The true story is the one we tell ourselves, there's nothing more real than a thought.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things premieres on Netflix September 4.