A couple drives out of a city towards his rural boyhood home so she can meet his parents. He’s funny, not particularly good-looking, maybe not funny, apparently knowledgeable about musicals, maybe a poetry expert, maybe a physicist. She’s melancholy, thinking of ending the weeks’-old relationship (“things”), or she’s perky; she’s maybe a student, maybe a literary critic, maybe a gerontologist, maybe a poet, maybe a waitress. As in all things Charlie Kaufman, there’s no stable ground. The director and writer is as good as any contemporary filmmaker in exploring time, as he did in his Oscar-winning script for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), in which another young couple goes back to the beginning to erase their relationship.
In her voice-over that opens “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and often dominates it, the “young woman” (Jessie Buckley)—variously called Lucy, Lucia, Louisa, Ames (“Ames…Amy…Is that my name?”)—questions whether we travel through time, or whether time travels through us. While all the characters “travel through time”—moving back and forth among themselves at different ages—she is the real time traveler, and undisturbed by it.
Kaufman, whose script is based on a debut novel by Iain Reid, introduces elements of horror, almost all of which turn out to be whimpers rather than bangs. He employs genre standards such as an old farm house, dead animals, a basement one is warned not to go down into (2017’s “Get Out!” and 2019’s “Parasite”), a cackling mother (Toni Collette) seen through an upstairs window (“Psycho,” 1960), empty institutional rooms and halls (“The Shining,” 1980), an odd-looking and sexually-inappropriate father (David Thewlis), a car trapped in a snowstorm. Yet there’s no real horror in the film, except the horror of realizing the limits of one’s ability to shape one’s existence.
Long segments are in that car, so enveloped by the snowstorm that it’s afloat in space and time. The couple is both captured and limited—symbolic of their lives. At the same time, in that confined space, Jake (Jesse Plemons) and the “young woman” express their various beings, desires and fears, batting about ideas and quotations—often as if they were their own—from William Wordsworth to Pauline Kael (her acerbic review of John Cassavetes’ 1974 “A Woman Under the Influence”) to Guy Debord (on the meaning of the spectacle) to David Foster Wallace (on TV) to the latest #MeToo interpretation of the pop classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Is Kaufman being pretentious, playing to an in-crowd, limiting the viewers who will fully understand his script to those familiar with the plethora of authors cited and their works?
Long segments are in that car, so enveloped by the snowstorm that it’s afloat in space and time.
In spite of the couple spending almost all the 2-plus hours of screen time together, “I’m Thinking…” is about loneliness, the isolation of the individual, the near impossibility of relating to others, and the likelihood that life will not yield to one’s dreams. Jake, the young man (or not so young—has he celebrated his 50th birthday, as his mother says, or his 20th, as he corrects her?), is a depressed and sometimes confused man, who cannot realize his ambitions, an unhappy, single high-school janitor (Guy Boyd) who was bullied in that school and is still living with his parents. As a pig (!) tells him, “someone has to be the pig with maggots”; in other words, face up to the life you’ve been given, or, “it is what it is.”
With two superb principal actors in Buckley and Plemons, Kaufman inventively illustrates his exploration of existential angst not only through the words and ideas of erudite authors, a fabricated animated commercial for Tulsey Town (an ice cream shop), and an invented Robert Zemeckis (who wrote his own time travel script, “Back to the Future,” 1986) film clip that presents a parallel relationship born of chance and fate, but most effectively through reference to the 1943 musical, “Oklahoma!” It may take more than one viewing, or a post-screening discussion, to understand the mythic import of that production, which at first appears out of place with the faux horror film. But it’s there.
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, Guy Boyd, David Thewlis
Runtime: 134 minutes
I’m Thinking of Ending Things ★★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Availability: Streaming on Netflix only. See JustWatch here for any updated availability.