Review: Charlie Kaufman's 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things'

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“I try to imbue my work with a sort of interiority,” says Lucy (Jessie Buckley), the artists-physics student-girlfriend of Charlie Kaufman's “I'm Thinking of Ending Things.”

The line could hardly describe Kaufman better, all the more so because it’s spoken by a character that may or may not be a figment of subconsciousness. No film writer has more regularly made his home inside the brain, treating the labyrinthine corridors of thought like sets to be peopled. John Ford had Monument Valley. Kaufman has the mind.

You wouldn't call it a wondrous place — though it can be. In Kaufman's melancholic films ("Being John Malkovich," “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Synecdoche, New York”) there are streams of consciousness, rivers of anxiety, oceans of embarrassment and, hopefully, a little life boat of authenticity.

Kaufman has, in a way, already reviewed “I'm Thinking of Ending Things” himself. His recent 700-page novel, “Antkind," is about a pathetic middle-aged film critic named B Rosenberger Rosenberg who at one point dismally rates Kaufman's own films. Of the writer-director's upcoming movie he decrees: “Whatever it is, it’s certain to be yet another turgid, overhyped foray into Kaufman’s self-referential, self-congratulatory psyche.”

It's hard not to admire the self-deprecation, but I'd give it more credit than that. “I'm Thinking of Ending Things," which debuts Friday on Netflix, isn't Kaufman's most dazzling puzzle ("Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich"), his most ambitious (the remarkable “Synecdoche”) or even his most gently funny/painful (his last one, the animated “Anomalisa”). A bleaker wintery wind blows though “I'm Thinking of Ending Things," a film Kaufman has suggested could be his last as a director.

It begins on the road. During a blizzard, Lucy and her boyfriend of seven weeks Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving to the farmhouse he grew up in to meet his parents. Our perspective is Lucy's, and she's thinking the relationship has already run its course. Pondering whether it's just easier to keep going, she could be talking about breaking up or suicide. In the car, with a mythical snowy nighttime blur around them, they talk Wordsworth; she recites a dark poem about homecoming; by discussing movies, viruses come up. “Viruses are just one more example of everything,” says Lucy.

There's the sense that the conversation — halting, overlapping, full of corrections and backtracks — is as much about the awkward back-and-forth as it is what they're talking about. Is this a dream? If it is, whose dream is it? Jake or Lucy's? Someone, maybe everyone in “I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is a projection. If this is a dream world, movies have their own reckoning for their role in invading and warping our fantasies. A maudlin mock Robert Zemeckis film makes a satirical cameo.

When they arrive at the house, the disorientation only increases. Jake's parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, both surrealistically sensational) are present one moment, absent another. They appear in vastly different ages. Even Lucy's name and profession shifts seemingly haphazardly. A picture on the wall of Jake as a child, she notices, looks just like her.

Kaufman, who famously turned his futile attempts to adapt Susan Orlean's “The Orchid Thief" into “Adaptation,” is this time working from a novel by Canadian author Iain Reid. It, too, was slippery with perspective and reality, but it coalesced more distinctly as from Jake's point-of-view and around an incident from the past.

Kaufman's “I'm Thinking of Ending Things” spirals more mysteriously into the mind. There's a dance sequence down high-school halls, a staged musical and some profound lines of dialogue: “We’re stationary. Time blows through us.”

I have my theories about how this all pieces together, but I'm not convinced they matter. Certainly some will be less enamored with an experience that can feel like tumbling through a succession of trap doors. It's a falling that seems to lead further from epiphany, not closer to it, until you're faced with, of all things, a staged performance of “Oklahoma.”

But to me, “I'm Thinking of Ending Things" nearly sustains something beautiful and sad that blends consciousness and time. Buckley is extraordinary, whether she's real or not. And the fleeting presence of Guy Boyd, as an elderly janitor and possible linchpin to the whole movie, is hauntingly good.

My only wish, more than any movie that's been released straight to the home these last few months, is to have watched “I'm Thinking of Ending Things" with an audience. Kaufman's greatest gift, I think, is to open up to others an inner honesty that doesn't often find its way on screen. It's a desperate grasping best experienced, in confusion and clarity, with others. Kaufman, like us all, contains multitudes.

“I'm Thinking of Ending Things,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language including some sexual references. Running time: 134 minutes. Three stars out of four.


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