As the writer of Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999), Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney, 2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) and the director of Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015), I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to Charlie Kaufman, expect the unexpected. His films cannot be easily defined by genre or even easily described, it’s really a case of experiencing them yourself. So where does that leave a reviewer trying to write about his work? Trapped in a Kaufman-like nightmare, that’s where.
It comes as something of a surprise that Netflix, of all places, is the home for Kaufman’s latest work – I’m Thinking of Ending Things – but things have changed drastically in recent years, with new films by Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee finding their home on the streaming platform. We are fortunate, in a way, that Kaufman’s new film is arriving straight onto our television screens, because if you’re anything like me, the first thing you’ll want to do is rewind and watch it all again. For this is one of the most idea-rich, complicated and layered films of the year, which requires several viewings to really wrap your head around.
A young woman (Jessie Buckley) reluctantly agrees to travel, in a snow storm, with her new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their remote farmhouse for the first time. She has doubts about the relationship and doubts about traveling, because she needs to get back so she can start work early in the morning. All of this is communicated mostly in narration by Buckley, but occasionally her thoughts spill out, via her mouth. Everything about Buckley’s character is nebulous – including her name (which changes throughout the film), her career, hobbies and clothing (watch out for her jumper changing colour).
Much like Adaptation which was about ‘Charlie Kaufman’ (played by Nicolas Cage) attempting to adapt Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief for the screen, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is based on a book by Iain Reid and also confronts the concepts of originality and adaptation. Kaufman asks if anything we do or say can ever be truly original, because us and our work are always a product of our influences. Some of the ‘influences’ that are interwoven into the film include works by Ralph Albert Blakelock (painter), Eva H.D (poet), Anna Kavan (novelist), Pauline Kael (film critic), the Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence and the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma. One of the joys of this film is discovering all of the art and writing that makes it up, like a patchwork quilt.
When Buckley and Plemons arrive at the farmhouse, there is a fabulously awkward dinner scene followed by the unraveling of the time-space continuum. It will come as no surprise that Collette and Thewlis deliver pitch-perfect performances as two people who we see at a wide-range of ages, as they are perfectly tuned to Kaufman’s comedic and emotional sensibilities. The second half of the film takes place on the long, dark, snowy journey home. Plemons insists on making several bizarre detours and stop-offs, while Buckley gets increasingly anxious about it getting later and later. The final stop-off is at Plemons’ old High School, where things become even more musical and dream-like.
It is so gratifying to see Buckley finally getting the career she deserves (as I’ve been aware of her since the 2008 TV talent show I’d Do Anything, in which she competed to play the role of Nancy in Oliver! in the West End). She has impressed in War & Peace, Taboo, Beast (in which she gives a phenomenal performance), Wild Rose, Fargo and Chernobyl. Plemons has also built an interesting career, since breaking through in Breaking Bad, most prominently in Fargo and Game Night. They are both incredible here, especially considering how much of the film takes place in the car on the way to and from the farmhouse. The film is extremely dialogue-heavy and only works because the two central actors are delivering such interesting performances, especially Buckley. She still manages to use physicality in surprising ways, even within the confines of a car seat.
The score by Jay Wadley leans into the theme that nothing is original and consciously tries to sound familiar, by triggering memories and replicating other musical styles, while still being its own original composition. Choreographer Peter Walker (of the New York City Ballet) also deserves a shout-out, but to explain why would be to spoil. Kaufman chose Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-nominated cinematographer Lukasz Zal for this film, which all feels part of his knowing sense of humour. Zal is known for his stunning black-and-white photography in Pawlikowski’s films, which is a huge contrast to a film like this, which deliberately and carefully uses colours, textures and patterns to create visually rich images that help communicate the themes of memory, imagination and point-of-view. Production designer Molly Hughes and costume designer Melissa Toth are both integral to communicating the film’s themes, particularly in the farmhouse, ice cream stand and the High School.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is one of the most rewarding films of the year, where if you invest two hours of your time, you’ll be repaid with something so packed with ideas, you’ll be left thinking about it for a long time afterwards. Kaufman movingly covers aging, memory and the passing of time, as well as the artist-muse relationship, projecting onto our partners when in a relationship, loss of identity and individualism and much, much more besides. Like all of his work, its extremely self-aware and Kaufman’s greatest gift is letting us see inside the mind of an artist while he’s producing the art we’re watching. And that mind shares many of the same anxieties that most artists and creatives do about leaving their mark on the world. It’s an extraordinary film which is going to provoke many interesting conversations.