Charlie Kaufman’s ‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things’ Is An Insular, Mystifying Experiment

To my mind, Charlie Kaufman has been responsible for at least three or four perfect movies (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Anomalisa at the top), and at the age of 61, could easily rest on his laurels as one of the greatest screenwriters of all time (not that I’d want him to). Instead, he has a 700-page novel and a 134-minute movie coming out this year: Antkind, from Random House, and I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, which he both wrote and directed, out this week on Netflix.

Knowing that Antkind is about a frustrated film critic named B. Rosenberger Rosenberg (part of the joke is that Rosenberg isn’t Jewish), it feels almost like Kaufman is pre-emptively daring any unfortunate middlebrow hack to become the butt of an enduring Kaufman joke by daring not to understand Kaufman’s latest masterpiece. He may as well have titled his latest “It’s a Trap!”

But fine, here I go into the dunking booth. Honestly, we sound like Ignatius J. Reilly any time we write a negative review anyway, and it’s not as if “film critics” were ever in danger of winning any popularity contests. Charlie Kaufman is probably my favorite filmmaker. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is, as of now, my least favorite of his films.

Adapted from Canadian author Iain Reid’s debut novel, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things takes its title from the inner monologue of its protagonist, played by Jessie Buckley, who’s thinking of breaking things off with her new boyfriend, Jake — played by Jesse Plemons — during a road trip to visit Jake’s parents (hey, Jessie & Jesse, how ’bout that). The Ireland-born Buckley, previously of Taboo and Chernobyl, and one of the best young actresses around, plays a character known alternately as Cindy, Lucy, Lucia, or Amy, who is either a poet, painter, physics student, gerontologist, waitress, or veterinary student depending on which version I’m Thinking Of Ending Things‘ constantly-shifting reality you choose to believe.

Charlie Kaufman is one of the most astute relationship chroniclers who has ever lived, giving us the enduring heartbreak of doomed romance in Eternal Sunshine (undoubtedly one of the greatest movies of all time), the narcotic rush of a new lover in Anomalisa, and the petty cruelty of a dying marriage in Being John Malkovich. His movies are about the inherent selfishness of the human condition and the struggle to connect (occasionally using himself as the butt of all his least charitable observations about humanity, as in Adaptation and Antkind). I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, with a relationship reference right in the title, is clearly attempting to mine some of the same territory. Yet for the first time, Kaufman seems unable to connect with his own characters. He can’t even name them.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is about mortality, relationships, inherited trauma, but more than anything it’s about verbal dexterity. Almost the entire first 30 minutes takes place inside Jake’s early 90s sedan, a two-hander with a single location. To Kaufman’s credit, this isn’t as boring as that sounds. Jake and Cindy/Lucy contemplate and complement, ponder and provoke, discussing Wordsworth, Oklahoma!, and the death drive in the animal kingdom, all culminating in a hilariously bleak poem that Lucy/Cindy/Lucia/Amy recites aloud.

…the sun goes up and down like a tired whore,
the weather immobile like a broken limb while you just keep getting older.
Nothing moves, but the shifting tides of salt in your body.
Your vision blears, you carry your weather with you; the big blue whale;
a skeletal darkness
you come home with your mutant gifts
to a house of bone
everything you see now
all of it

The poem is the clearest evidence of the old Kaufman wit, and feels a bit self-deprecating, like Kaufman poking fun at his own depressiveness (though for the record I always found him to be at least as idealistic as he is bleak).

Through it all, there are constant tone shifts and brief forays into formalistic experimentation — the implication that Jake can maybe hear what Lucy is thinking, Lucy staring directly into the camera, the extended, certainly-not-intended-literally poems recited by heart. The stylized, hyperarticulate, tone-shifting dialogue, in particular, feels like it was borrowed from Don Delillo or another author whose characters’ dialogue feels more like drowning in that author’s obsessions than listening to separate humans speaking. Is Kaufman doing an art? But why?

This manic invocation of theater, poetry, high culture, horticulture, is the kind of thing I expect from Aaron Sorkin or Noah Baumbach, not Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman’s experimentation has traditionally taken the form of characters doing, not characters saying. Here the main dramatic tension is our expectation that all these references will eventually add up to something.

When Jake and whatsherface finally arrive at Jake’s parents’ isolated farmhouse in the midst of a blizzard, the action gets darker, more provocative. There are scratches on the door to the basement. A border-collie that won’t stop shaking. A pool of blood on the floor of the barn where Jake tells us some pigs got eaten alive by maggots. What’s happening here? Clearly an art of some kind. (Bone, everything you see…)

David Thewlis (voice of the lead in Anomalisa and the yucky-toothed guy in Fargo season 3) plays Jake’s lecherous, belittling father, who goes off on a tangent about how much he dislikes abstract art (didn’t we already see this character, in Sideways, with Thomas Hayden Church’s father-in-law saying he only reads non-fiction?). Toni Collette plays Jake’s high-strung mother, alternately supportive and infantilizing. Both parents flash forward and backward in age from scene to scene, sometimes appearing young and vibrant, other times old and decrepit, confirming anew that Kaufman is most definitely doing an art of some kind.

Kaufman seems like he’s leaving us breadcrumbs along the way, patterns and memes and callbacks, to Pauline Kael, to David Foster Wallace, to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (is Kaufman lashing out at being unfairly lumped in with the “sad white guy” artistic milieu?), leaving us wondering whether this will all come together in some Kaiser Soze moment of clarity at the end. He’s turned his characters themselves into yet more ephemera, probably deliberately, but in such a way that makes it hard to care. For all our selfishness, it’s much easier to care about people than about whether a person is doing an art.

The Reid novel from which the film was adapted has been described as a “psychological horror” in the vein of Stephen King, and Kaufman’s movie feels David Lynchian at times, like a series of vignettes in which a horror film is about to break out but never does. It offers, mainly, the vague sense that this is all supposed to be a fresh and intriguing way of telling a story. And this intrigue is meant to be enough for us not to mind that the characters are all ciphers performing a series of illusory bits and homages amidst a frozen wasteland. This dearth of recognizable humanity and situations made me feel, presumably Kaufman-like, trapped inside my own head, both lonely and bored.

Maybe it’s quarantine, but lately I find myself feeling less and less interested in the innovative storytelling techniques and groundbreaking formal experimentation that once inspired me, and which, to some extent, were Kaufman’s bread and butter. These days I kind of just want to meet interesting characters and go to interesting places. Ted Lasso looks like absolute Disney drivel on paper, but had me hooked, thanks to a cast of characters I just wanted to hang out with for a while and a setting that was just enough outside my daily experience as to offer some novelty. Ted Lasso is a decidedly less ambitious thing than I’m Thinking of Ending Things and I judge them through different lenses (and yes, some dull critic invoking a dopey commercial television show in a review of a Charlie Kaufman movie would probably make a great bit for B. Rosenberger Rosenberg). But maybe a polarized world that always feels on the brink of some fresh collapse has made me yearn for simple stories of nice people, interesting places, and low stakes. I don’t know.

Maybe, like Sean Dolittle said of sports recently, Charlie Kaufman movies are a reward for a functioning society. Or maybe this one just wasn’t quite as good.

‘I’m Thinking Of Ending Things’ streams on Netflix on September 4. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.