I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS— 2 STARS
Let’s take a look at a certain adjective that follows Oscar-winning filmmaker Charlie Kaufman and his films around closer than their own shadows. The word is “peculiar.” Its most desirable descriptor is a “particular, unique, and special” badge of honor of distinction and exclusivity. That always gets attention. The more odious and common use of peculiar, however, finger-points the “out of the ordinary, queer, odd, and strange.” Charlie Kaufman has long been a beautiful mess of both connotations, and his latest work, the frosty Netflix chiller I’m Thinking of Ending Things, typifies the extreme of that polarity in an unfavorable fashion.
LESSON #1: WHY PECULIARITY DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK— At least for this writer and viewer, the inescapable burden about exuding such a full range of peculiarity is that each half does not always engender the other. Odd and strange for the sake of odd and strange isn’t automatically worth top distinction. Not everything out of the ordinary deserves heaping praise, just for the sake of being different. Somewhere in that creative cauldron, the exclusive strangeness has to simmer into something effective or heady. Do that and you get the aforementioned badge.
Not entirely because of the ever-present and symbolic snow, this film doesn’t get anywhere close to that temperature. You’re going to read truly intriguing remarks about I’m Thinking About Ending Things, starting with Netflix’s own pitch of the movie being “an exploration of regret, longing and the fragility of the human spirit.” Every exploration needs a compass and this movie’s one is as dead as a door nail.
LESSON #2: MEETING PARENTS WILL ALWAYS BE A BIG DEAL— The trajectory of I’m Thinking of Ending Things and that frozen compass does begin with direction. An unnamed young woman (Jessie Buckley of Wild Rose) at the crossroads of a long-term relationship with her quiet and sensitive boyfriend named Jake (the prolific Jesse Plemons) joins him for a road trip to the country to visit his parents. Guys don’t bring every gal home, making this a nostalgic trip for him and opportunities for her to earn browning points. If that was only her desire.
LESSON #3: THE INTERNAL MONOLOGUE OF DESPONDENCY— One of the first internal monologues from Buckley’s scattered and worrisome narration during that car ride blends two foreboding questions. Her character wonders whether an unspoken idea is original and if a thought held dear is closer to the truth than reality. For a second, you wonder if it’s the actress or Kaufman talking. That aside, there is a swinging mystery between specificity and uncertainty. Mental queries like those eventually lead to repeated decision point statements that match this movie’s title. Leaving Jake becomes a constant “one question to answer” of nominal importance.
Breaking his extended sympathy against her indomitable ice while driving, Jake asks his distant girlfriend often “what are you thinking.” The replied answer is almost always a constructed emotional guard like “vague in-my-head stuff.” When those gloomy queries come over her, constant pivots of often contemptuous conversation between her and Jake seem to present themselves. It’s as if he knows the exact moments that titular notion has come to her mind and interjects on the need to rebound and save face. Unfortunately, the substance of those exchanges do not forge engagement. They are lost words for lost people.
LESSON #4: END THINGS BEFORE THEY ESCALATE— Hot and cold, forwards and backwards, Kaufman’s film is an obstacle course of avoiding or confronting the anxiety and hurt feelings of a potential exit out of a failing romantic and emotional relationship. The woman doesn’t see a future with Jake, but here she is on this trip, in his childhood home, and weighing all the positive and negative traits of his “diligence”, as if that was his peak. Her grave monologues make that darker with statements on inevitable mortality and the invented hope to trudge and push against that finality. If your head and your heart are at that point with someone or something, get out before things get worse. Don’t even get in the car.
Still, the prospect of the approaching parents ahead holds interesting promise. All the while, I’m Thinking of Ending Things tracks a subplot of an lowly and lonely school janitor (Guy Boyd of Foxcatcher) working the night shift and eeking out a living. His nearly wordless spectre adds more lost words for more lost people.
LESSON #4: HAPPINESS IN A FAMILY IS AS NUANCED AS UNHAPPINESS— When the two arrive at a farm and meet his father and mother (a slack-jawed David Thewlis and every indie’s favorite twitchy sycophant Toni Collette), the personalities and the presences begin to veritably and metaphorically shift. An uncomfortably chatty dinner leads to mild rage and embarrassment in several places. Rooms, gestures, gazes, and exchanges of compliments carry morose mystery and shifts of time that throw our female protagonist and the viewer for a loop.
In this bottled middle act, I’m Thinking of Ending Things carries the hints and overtones of a creepy possible thriller happening before our eyes. Alas, the effect ends at hints. Ideas and implications are dangled and then vanish with little point or purpose. They are replaced with a semi-grandiose third act where showy happenstance presents the janitor crossing paths with our couple for encounters wildly out of causality with anything else before that point in the film.
Between the body language of discomfort and the spoken and unspoken speeches of disquiet, Jessie Buckley gives a fervent lead performance. She commits to all the nuance possible of the wavering confidence and the internal trap of depression to play this central character. Working parallel, Jesse Plemons doesn’t scale his partner role down as far into intentional blankness as his memorable Game Night role played for laughs a few years ago, but his walking void cannot keep up with Buckley’s overwrought hurdling. Even his most expressive acts and outbursts register so very little.
Is there brilliance in the indecipherable within this adaptation of Iain Reed’s horror fiction? That’s both the knock and modus operandi of Charlie Kaufman. That’s where peculiarity pisses on a good piece of art. His abstract creations are wholly unique, yet aimless and tedious to the nth degree. For every poetic word, cinematic flourish, or striking idea that ignites a challenging neuron in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a triple helping of something obscure destroys momentum and snuffs any flicker. When he’s right, lucidity outshines the oddity, but that is not this film. This is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, Charlie Kaufman movie to collapse under a mountain of ostentation. We’re back to another beautiful mess.