From the inventive, if not neurotic, mind of Charlie Kaufman comes I’m Thinking of Ending Things, his latest work of speculative fiction that keeps the absurdist theater deep in attendance, even during a pandemic. I’m Thinking… is bold, brilliant work to view but mercurial to grasp and foggy to discern. A beautifully shot movie indeed but weird in narrative and, pending point of view, pretentiously lacking in denouement.
Of all of Charlie Kaufman’s movies, this one is the most Charlie Kaufman-est.
Kaufman is better known as a writer. Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are all intelligent and engaging movies. They are also directed by someone else (two of those by Spike Jonze) and, more importantly, they are also more mainstream acceptable, albeit totally offbeat. Those different directors and external producers no doubt helped focus the Kaufman weirdness. That weirdness is totally at play here and Netflix is Kaufman’s Bedlam.
Kaufman, aided by cinematographer Lukasz Zal and editor Robert Frazen, shows a tight production with, essentially, three claustrophobic sets: a car, a house, and a school. All familiar elements that Kaufman twists with suburban dread. I’m Thinking… is a fantasy of sorts, a dream of possible lives, sculpted with a Brothers Grimm ire; colored with David Lynch-ian hues.
Jake and Lucy (Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley) are a new couple on their first road trip through rural Oklahoma to visit Jake’s parents (the always-and-equally-fantastic Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Jake is excited to be taking this next step but Lucy is, well, “thinking of ending things” with Jake, as her internal monologue constantly repeats.
Following a long, snowy drive, coupled with long, run-on dialogue, the farmhouse provides the first glimpse that something is… off, aside from the overly-floral wallpaper. Lucy begins witnessing other moments as Jake’s parents flow between their middle-aged selves to older versions to elderly.
Reality skews itself through folds and repetitions. Lucy internally realizes that, “People like to think of themselves as points moving through time. I think it’s the opposite. We are stationary and time passes through us.”
The oncoming blizzard has Lucy demanding a return to the city. Jake, tragic and unsure, is determined to show her his high school and goes on a detour. As does any remaining realism. Within, Lucy watches her life with Jake unfold in a beautiful dance scene before all crashes down in the head-scratching, time-altering confusion that is Charlie’s – or is that Jake’s – head.
The dialogue is what makes this movie and attempts to hold together a narrative string as the plot ducks and weaves through time. Much of the dialogue is internal to Lucy, which results in competing conversation, internal and external, as well as with the parents over a strange family dinner. Background races to the forefront and vice versa.
As the story dissolves, this strange interchange is all that truly makes relevance out of the sometimes incoherent scenes.
Jesse Plemons is the proverbial everyman and stutters and stammers all the while as proof; flashing a charming smile when needed. Relative newcomer Jessie Buckley, who was silently strong in HBO’s Chernoybl series, plays the perfect counterpoint. She is peculiar. And smart. And lonely. Buckley is great at showing all three.
This is a visual experience, not an auditory one. However, the aforementioned dance sequence is as magnificent to hear as is it to witness. The music, borrowed from the musical Oklahoma!, is essential in the retelling, synchronized with the dancers’ choreography and becomes that singular moment in the movie where everything is perfect.
Make no doubt about it, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is pretentious as hell. Kaufman revels in the weirdness of imagined worlds, teases of dialogue, even animated illusions. This one will no doubt be divisive in years to come. Aficionados will ply worship upon it, while most direct cinema fans will shrug it off. The movie is not without its moments, with the dance number near the finale, one reminiscent of a similarly used feat in the Netflix series Giri/Haji, being a key one. The inconsistency that occurs in between these all-too infrequent moments is what becomes frustrating. The plot is simple but the narrative is overly messy. Patience is most definitely required. Kaufman, however, becomes too clever and concludes with an open ending that is maddeningly disappointing.