How do you solve a problem like Charlie Kaufman?
Perhaps “problem” is the wrong word. Puzzle? Riddle? Rabbit hole? The Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — more recently the director of “Synecdoche, New York” and “Anomalisa” — is one of my favorite filmmakers, but he doesn’t make it easy. Kaufman’s latest, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” is no exception. The only thing harder than wrapping your head around a Charlie Kaufman film is foolishly attempting to write about one. It’s vanity, really. What insight can I possibly offer into a movie as dense as this?
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a transient tapestry of love and death, shifting in and out of reality, travelling forwards and backwards in time. It’s a black box of ideas that reverberate off the walls, echo in your ears and latch to the back of your brain. It’s challenging, funny, boring, intimate, expansive, poignant and obtuse, all at once. I’m not sure if I liked it, but I’m dying to watch it again.
The film is about a Young Woman (Irish actress Jessie Buckley), credited as such. Is her name Lucy or Louisa? Is she wearing an orange shirt, or is it purple? Is she a physicist, a painter, a poet, what? Identity blurs in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” where the only thing she’s sure of is that title. She’s been seeing Jake (Jesse Plemons) for six or seven weeks, she can’t remember. It’s going nowhere. “I’m thinking of ending things,” she repeats in melancholic voice-over, but not before she’s stuck on a wintery road trip to meet his parents.
Jake is your run-of-the-mill Charlie Kaufman protagonist: erudite but insecure, longing but awkward. In the role, Plemons channels the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, star of “Synecdoche.” But Jessie Buckley is our hero, Kaufman’s first female protagonist and, in some ways, a response to a common complaint about his leads. Jake is insufferable — a well-read guy who needs you to know it — but Buckley is the opposite. She’s just as smart but completely unpretentious, and she shines in a role that demands she be everything and nothing at once.
Much of the film takes place inside of Jake’s claustrophobic car, where the two talk about movies, poetry, musical theatre and more. When they finally arrive at Jake’s childhood home — a ranch in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma — things start to get weird. Charlie Kaufman weird.
Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) seem straight out of an A24 horror film. Collette’s presence in particular encourages comparisons to “Hereditary,” but I would sooner liken the film to “Mother!” And just like Jennifer Lawrence, Buckley slowly loses herself inside the house.
“We’re stationary, and time passes through us,” she murmurs. And she’s right: one moment Jake’s parents are young, the next they’re old and before long, both of them are dead. All the while, Kaufman cuts to a seemingly separate story about an aging high school janitor. Charlie, what are you doing?
There’s a lot to love in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” The film is shot in Academy ratio by cinematographer Łukasz Żal; the score by Jay Wadley is stirring; the editing by Robert Franzen is designed to discomfort; and the production and costume design are exquisite. There’s also a lot to chew on: themes of time, aging, identity and self.
But has Kaufman burrowed too far? The pacing veers wildly, a consequence of the script (an adaptation of Iain Reid’s 2016 novel) diving deep into philosophical waters without so much as a life preserver. The dialogue is stilted — it’s the kind of movie where every character sounds like a pontificating screenwriter. And days later, I’m still not sure what he was trying to say. Themes without a thesis, if you will.
And yet, I can’t shake this film off of me. “You can’t fake a thought,” Buckley says, and to the extent that this movie has lodged itself squarely in the back of my mind, she’s not wrong. I’m not going to rate it; I’m not sure how I could. I’m struggling to contain it in 600 words.
Even after I approach something close to an understanding of this film, it will still probably rank toward the bottom of Kaufman’s filmography. But even messy Charlie Kaufman makes me mesmerized.
This review was originally published on September 8, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.