This is Kaufman at perhaps his "Kaufman-iest" for better or for worse, depending on the viewer, adapting Iain Reid's novel of the same name for the screen, and directing it with his inventive and undeniably unique style.
The result is a genre blend that might best be described as an "existential thriller", but it's aiming more for scratches on your head than for goosebumps on your skin. The film revels in psychological dread, asks big questions, slowly hints at small answers, and ultimately leaves viewers and their search engines to discover what it was truly all about, gambling that what they find will result in a deeper appreciation for the experience upon reflection.
I'm Thinking Of Ending Things is the latest effort from the fascinating mind of Charlie Kaufman, who wrote films like Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, and directed his own scripts for Synecdoche, New York as well as Anomalisa, which he did here for this Netflix film. The freedom that the platform allows filmmakers in making the movies they truly envision is what continually attracts notable writer/directors to it, and it seems Kaufman was given free rein to be unapologetically himself in his first film since 2015.
He's built up an almost cult-like following of highly devoted fans who don't shy away from the word "genius" when describing his work, and the stronger aspects of this movie may convince you they're right. For those fans, this anxiously-awaited return is certainly a treat, as it effectively explores some of the same ideas found in his earlier films, and in many ways measures up with the best of them. But audiences unfamiliar with Kaufman's style and unsure of what they signed up for, may find themselves tuning out during the film's long, unrelenting monologues, or turned off by an approach that's not grounded in realism, but more concerned with the symbolic.
The plot is fairly straight forward, as it follows a young woman (Jessie Buckley) traveling with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) through a blizzard to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at the farmhouse where he grew up. The woman's internal thoughts reveal that she's thinking of breaking things off with Jake, but soon their relationship becomes far from the only thing in question, as bizarre interactions with his parents, strange occurrences inside their house, and constant shifting in the scenery around the couple as well as in their placement in time, calls the nature of their reality, and maybe even their existence, into doubt. It's not long before we too, start to wonder what it is we're actually seeing, and attempt to piece together the subtle clues the film offers while pushing confoundingly towards a third act that refuses to hand out conclusive answers, but opts rather for the theatrical (literally).
Despite this strange blend of ingredients which ultimately amount to an intentionally puzzling concoction, the film does entertain at its surface in many ways throughout. Buckley is the standout performance at the center, with Plemons and his somewhat sweet yet off-putting self at her side. But Collette and Thewlis certainly steal a few scenes as Jake's unnerving parents, both showcasing their impressive range, creepily comedic chops, and ability to unsettle with a look or a line. It's in these awkward interactions where the film is its most relatable, as Kaufman nails the often uncomfortable experience of meeting a partner's parents for the first time, but with a wildly heightened sort of accuracy. And in the secluded farmhouse is where the film gets to have its fun, often at the expense of the woman who just wants to get home before the snow piles too high, and at the risk of losing its viewers in the process. It's a cerebral trip that messes with space and time and trusts we'll go along for ride, all the while wading through concerns of the human condition like aging, insecurity, missed opportunities, and death.
That's music to the ears of Kaufman fans, and may well be gripping for all kinds of viewers, but that grip doesn't let you go easily, and the film doesn't quite tell you what it wanted to say before fading out. The double meanings aren't fully revealed and viewers likely won't be completely sure of the story's intention, unless they happened to read the book first, which clears things up more emphatically in its final pages. But if you only watched the movie, you'll have to check out a YouTube video essay, or read an article like this one, which does a great job of laying out what it was really all about. This extra homework is the kind of thing that some people love, as it gives them a deeper appreciation for the film, and contributes to the fun of re-watching with new eyes. Others may have wanted a more traditional, relaxing Netflix experience, but that's just not what this director does.
Love him or hate him, it's hard to refute that Charlie Kaufman is one of the most original filmmakers working today, and though its based on a novel by Iain Reid, I'm Thinking Of Ending Things is a product that feels like pure, unadulterated Kaufman. We might see it contend in a 2020 Academy Awards race that is sure to be as unconventional as his films. And this one is no different, poking and prodding its viewers in all kinds of largely compelling ways, and asking them to think... hard. But of all the questions raised by this movie, the most important one for audiences might be: is it asking too much?
I'm Thinking Of Ending Things is streaming now on Netflix.