Netflix UK film review: I’m Thinking of Ending Things
James R | On 06, Sep 2020
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Colette, David Thewlis
Watch I’m Thinking of Ending Things online in the UK: Netflix UK
“You can’t fake a thought,” observes a young woman (Jessie Buckley) in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Going on a road trip with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to meet his parents, she finds herself consumed by that titular thought: every step of the way, she can’t shake the notion of wanting to break things off. No matter how nice Jake seems, she can’t fake wanting to stay together.
Charlie Kaufman’s new film, based on Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, beautifully captures the creeping, crippling power of an idea or thought, one that can distort the way you perceive the world and people around you. The film immerses us in that experience, as we see Jessie Buckley’s young woman try to navigate her way through an increasingly surreal ordeal.
Everything about Jake’s homecoming is off, just by a fraction, and tiny incongruities stack up until we’re questioning everything we see. People seem to age and get younger, their hands and faces change, their costumes transform, the rooms rearrange, the food never runs out – time becomes as subjective as anything else on display, and the whole thing promises to unravel into something much darker.
If all of this sounds disorienting, you’re not wrong, and it’s credit to the cast that we stay in the moment even it as moves out from under us and Buckley’s young woman. Toni Colette and David Thewlis are remarkable as Jake’s mother and father, Colette simultaneously intense, overbearing, withdrawn and manic, Thewlis deliberately at odds with the Middle America setting, at once heartbreakingly understated, eerily mannered and hilariously literal. Their laughs alone are enough to give you nervous chuckles and awkward chills.
Jessie Buckley, meanwhile, delivers the performance of her career as a character who seems to change with every shift of mood and whim. She’s constantly battling a tide of memories, desires and suspicions, stuck in a limbo of inertia while trying to fight her way out to claim some sense of agency. In one of the film’s best scenes, she performs a poem – Bonedog – that she’s written herself, with a haunting clarity. In another, she’s channelling Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, before reciting Pauline Kael’s damning critique of John Cassavetes’ movie.
Throughout, the one constant remains Jake, played with equal nuance by Jesse Plemons. He’s schlubby, quiet and downbeat but also strongly opinionated, widely read and apparently knowledgeable about everything. He’s sympathetic but also intangibly unlikeable, misanthropic yet earnestly dreaming of an emotional connection with his ideal match. The more time we spend with both of them – they’re rarely on-screen apart – the more the film becomes tinged with his melancholy. Plemons carries all this with the gravitas of Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche New York, a film in which a man cast an entire ensemble of actors to play out his own cognitive dissonance, and the self-absorption of Kaufman’s last film, Anomalisa, in which a man suffered from a disorder that made everyone’s voice sound like his own.
Kaufman has always been fascinated by the suggestion that humans root their identities in others, and vice versa, projecting on to people their own tastes, wants and dislikes and forming connections based on that. But while his predisposition towards under-appreciated men threatens to turn I’m Thinking of Ending Things into Incel Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman is also bold in honestly grappling with his own neuroses, and heartfelt in his appreciation of the sway that emotions have – even if they’re just to distract humans from more morbid truths.
“Things will get better is a uniquely human fantasy born out of the uniquely human knowledge that they will not,” we’re told halfway through Ending Things, a line that makes it clear why Iain Reid’s thriller caught the eye of the guy who penned Adaptation. If Kaufman’s script recalls elements of that mind-bending exploration of writer’s block and screenwriting cliches, it also cements the storyteller’s ability to craft a vivid sense of mood and mental state, sinking his teeth into the metaphor of the film’s evocative title.
Working with DoP Lukasz Zal (Ida, Cold War), Kaufman traps everything that happens in a tightly framed academy ratio, while the bleak, snowy landscapes and long takes of Buckley through the car’s passenger window emphasise the claustrophobic isolation of a situation that feels like it will inevitably turn sour. By the time the couple reaches the farmhouse, the tension is at nail-biting heights, and each cutting piece of dialogue and brilliantly jarring editing choice pierces the illusion of this being a conventional romance. What does Buckley’s young woman do for a living? Why does Jake have a book with the poem Bonedog in? What exactly is in the family’s basement? And what does all that have to do with a reclusive janitor played by Guy Boyd?
This wonderfully assembled labyrinth of anxiety, however, doesn’t always know how to find its way out, and it’s a shame that the final act – which will make more sense if you’ve read the novel – takes an abstract structure and consciously makes it less concrete. On an emotional level, it’s a bold, swooning dive into the hopes and dreams that movies and musicals have encouraged in audiences – the potential for a loving embrace in a high school corridor or the wish to be recognised by all for your achievements – and the disappointment, depression and regrets that can follow. On a narrative level, though, it’s frustrating. “You can’t fake a thought,” Buckley’s young woman observes. I’m Thinking of Ending Things proves that point in more ways than one.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.