The work of Charlie Kaufman is one of irreconcilable contradictions – the desire to forget the pain of a break-up even if it means repeating the same mistakes, the creativity born from personal and artistic failure, the desire to do something meaningful in a world devoid of meaning – all of these ideas form the basis of a filmography that is as alien and labyrinthine as it is inherently human. It’s a relatively small body of films that I find extremely difficult to write about, precisely because of these often maddening internal conflicts. While I don’t believe Kaufman to be a particularly devious or tricky filmmaker – he’s much too honest in his worldview, and I never get the impression that he’s purposely setting out to stump or confuse his audience – as soon as I sit down at the keyboard upon finishing one of his movies I find my mind hitting a brick wall. There’s something about them that is confounding beyond words, surprising and original in that way that discovering a piece of art that truly speaks to you often is.
“It’s like you wrote it about me”, Jake (Jesse Plemons) says early on in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, after quietly listening to his unnamed girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) recite a melancholy poem she supposedly wrote. The two are on a road trip to meet Jake’s parents, but she’s thinking of ending things. She can’t articulate why – Jake is nice, empathetic, he listens to her – but the thought nevertheless consumes her as she narrates her vague concerns to the audience. Something is wrong, “profoundly, unutterably, un-fixably” wrong, and we sense her dread through the creepy irregularities that arise as the two embark on this increasingly uncanny road trip. To start, it’s like Jake is able to hear her pensive asides to the audience, chiming in to talk to her just when she’s arriving at the conclusion of a particularly concerning train of thought. She’s also receiving phone calls that appear to come from herself, during which a strange man repeats the same cryptic mantra every time. And there’s just something about the way Jake talks to her that gives off the impression of someone desperately trying to keep a horrible secret.
Things get even eerier once they arrive, with Toni Collette and David Thewlis delivering deeply uncomfortable (and often uncomfortably hilarious) performances as Jake’s eccentric parents, who playfully howl and hiss at the couple throughout dinner like a pack of ravenous hyenas. The dinner party seems to last forever, encompassing a wide range of conversational topics, from the ability of an artist to imbue an emotion into their work to the “genus” edition of Trivial Pursuit to the young woman’s first meeting with Jake. Time seems to break down and lose almost all meaning after this point, allowing Kaufman the room to launch into a vaguely nightmarish exploration of the ideas Iain Reid’s novel left (mostly) for the reader to infer between the lines.
As an adaptation of another writer’s work, I’m Thinking of Ending Things often fares quite well. Upon finishing the novel myself, I was not in the least bit surprised that Kaufman found its meditations on identity, mortality, and human loneliness so compelling. It may not be as unpredictable or as unwieldy an adaptation as Adaptation, but the film brings Reid’s words to life with two perfect casting choices in Plemons and Buckley. Buckley is especially terrific, and deserves praise for her seemingly effortless ability to jump between varying moods and modes of dialogue, sometimes within the same scene (admittedly a good deal of the credit for this illusion of spontaneity should also be extended to Kaufman’s erratic script and the meticulous work of his editor Robert Frazen). Most impressive, though, is Buckley’s pitch-perfect delivery of Reid’s prose, which captures the mood and interiority of the novel’s first-person narration surprisingly well (no small feat for any adaptation).
Jesse Plemons has been a familiar face to audiences for quite some time now through his supporting roles in as excellent movies as The Master and The Irishman, not to mention his more memorable performances on television (Fargo, Breaking Bad, Black Mirror), but I’m Thinking of Ending Things marks the first time the 32-year-old actor has been afforded the opportunity to play a leading role in a major release. It’s astonishing how perfect a casting he is as Jake, a tenuous and flexible character conjured exclusively through subjective narration. In all of his performances, Plemons molds his inherently awkward disposition to the traits of his role; he has a face and persona that can be untrustworthy and casually ruthless just as easily as it can be charming and likable. This almost chameleonic ability fuses perfectly to a role like Jake, who through his girlfriend’s eyes can be clumsy, cute, aloof, eccentric, and even a little frightening. It’s not a very forthcoming performance, which is perhaps most interesting of all considering the comparably effusive leading men in Kaufman’s other scripts.
That sense of coldness and restraint is prevalent throughout the entire film, both in the literal snowstorm its two characters find themselves within and in the frigid emotional landscape it navigates. It’s probably Kaufman’s most difficult film altogether, less in the scene-to-scene confusion of it all (the existence of a source text to refer to certainly helps parse the film’s literal narrative) and more in its plain – and truthfully quite surprising – lack of sentimentality. What ultimately sets it apart from Kaufman’s other films, for better and for worse, is the fact that it is a story utterly vacant of hope. Even in Synecdoche, New York or Anomalisa – both exceptionally miserable films – there was at least a sense that things could get better. As the audience, we knew that likely wouldn’t happen, but a story has to have a sense of drama, after all. By contrast, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a film that broadcasts how conclusively things aren’t going to get better. They’re “already dead. Dead a long time ago”, as the text succinctly states.
There are certain aspects of I’m Thinking of Ending Things that improve upon the novel, and there are other choices that only serve to obfuscate its intended meaning. The visit with Jake’s parents, for instance, vastly expands upon the social horror and feelings of existential confusion the novel’s narrator already felt before arriving, turning the scenes into something of a surreal ghost story. The film’s final act on the other hand feels more inconclusive and perplexing than the novel’s; while nevertheless cinematically intriguing, something about it seems standoffish and irritatingly ambivalent in a way that none of Kaufman’s prior work has ever felt to me. Ultimately, it’s difficult to say which version is better. Taken separately, both the film and the novel bear their own weaknesses and strengths, but only when viewed together do these fascinating disparities make themselves fully known, forming a melancholy composite of modern loneliness that one feels nevertheless compelled to revisit.