My parents considered themselves cinephiles, but by the time they reached their 40s, they claimed they had seen every story told ever told. When I begged my father to take me to see Alien, he applied that same argument. Due to my persistence, he relented, thanking me afterwards for dragging him to see what he called a “masterpiece”, despite it essentially amounting to a haunted house film set in outer space. We may no longer have any new stories, but Ridley Scott showed him a new way of telling them. Enter writer-director Charlie Kaufman, who never met a meta he couldn’t out-meta, with his new film adaptation of Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, to prove that you can make a new story by saying they no longer exist.
On the surface a variation of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Jessie Buckley plays Lucy (although her name constantly changes) whose new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) drives her through the snow to meet his parents for a meal. Sounds pleasant enough, except Lucy tells us in voiceover that she’s considering ending this relationship. On the drive, strange cracks appear in the storytelling. Jake seems to be able to hear Lucy’s thoughts. Her profession keeps changing. She recites a poem she didn’t write yet pretends she did. Later in the film, she’ll do the same with Pauline Kael’s withering review of A Woman Under The Influence. To make matters worse, the pair don’t seem to communicate with each other very well, constantly taking minute jabs or letting out uncomfortable sighs. Add a ticking clock in which Lucy insists they return to the city immediately after dinner, and you’ll easily get the sense of a trap being set.
Arriving home, we meet Jake’s unstable parents, played with expert unease by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, and their dog, who has a Jacob’s Ladder method of shaking himself dry. To say things don’t quite add up doesn’t begin to describe what follows, and spoiling it won’t happen in this review. Needless to say, Kaufman takes a familiar ritual of meeting the parents and turns it into an unsettling psychodrama.
Although this could easily fit into M. Night Shayamalan’s thriller canon, Kaufman may match those beats, but he mostly has existential dread on his mind. The film tackles such issues as identity, duality, homophobia, appropriation, misogyny, the inability to truly know someone, the fracturing of time and thought, death, and my father’s insistence that there are no new ideas under the sun. Spinning those together with two songs and the ballet from Oklahoma! (not kidding), a Lynchian visit to an ice cream stand in the middle of nowhere, and a mysterious high school janitor who may have all the answers, Kaufman sets a morose tone, but with the ultra-talented cinematographer Lukasz Zal (Cold War, Ida) on board to create one gorgeous Academy ratio image after another, it’s a cinematic treat. Just the swirling snow alone, highly evocative of The Shining, pulled me into this dark yet seductive story.
While a film about ideas, or lack thereof, may seem appealing to some, it wouldn’t succeed without its powerhouse performances. Collette and Thewlis have clearly cornered the market on creep types, and do wonderful work here, but this film belongs to Buckley and Plemons. Expertly walking that tightrope of a relationship on the bubble, the two manage to simultaneously play exasperated and loving, sometimes within the same breath. Buckley has a fantastic moment in which she says something cruel to Plemons yet follows it with an upturned mouth to smooth things over. What a treat to have two of the best actors around in the same film.
When I realized the film was about everything, I stopped trying to figure it out and just went along for the ride. Even the title has multiple meanings, referring to someone about to dump her boyfriend and also about someone who thinks about endings themselves. We may have all seen this type of angst play out in countless films before, but I’m Thinking Of Ending Things makes me want to see more of them anyhow. As long as we have singular talents such as Charlie Kaufman around, I’ll keep going to the movies.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things can be streamed now on Netflix.
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