Charlie Kaufman's ominously named new film, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, with its lower-case title design, is cinema in all-caps. And perhaps the best breakup movie since Ari Aster's Midsommar.
After a career spent trying to piece together the broken fragments of the fragile male psyche, Kaufman, in his new film, introduces — for the first time — a female protagonist. But she might not be real. It's complicated.
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Played by Jessie Buckley, the character — like most Kaufman characters — is essentially an extension of the filmmaker himself. And as terrific as Buckley is as The Young Woman, a part of me would like to believe that she was cast simply so that Kaufman could add another layer of surrealism to his story. Buckley's co-star, you see, is Jesse Plemons, who plays the boyfriend, Jake. An equally valid counterargument could be made that Jake is the protagonist. But he might not be real either.
Casting two lead actors whose names sound exactly alike, to play characters that might be imaginary — all signs point to them being constructs of a lonely janitor's mind — is the tip of the iceberg as far as the kookiness of Kaufman's film is concerned.
In an opening scene that will remind viewers of Jordan Peele's comparatively more straightforward Get Out, we're introduced to the couple as they're on their way into the countryside to meet his parents. They've known each other for about seven weeks, but their relationship is new enough for him to ask if she likes Wordsworth, as if they're still discovering things about each other. She's contemplating dumping him, that much is made clear.
"I'm thinking of ending things," she thinks to herself during the endless drive to his parents', again and again and again. But while this initially sounds like a reference to their relationship, a later conversation about the writer David Foster Wallace gives the words a rather morbid new meaning. "Even people who know nothing else about David Foster Wallace know that he killed himself," Jake tells The Young Woman, who nods. They might be the same person, or they might be Charlie Kaufman, having a conversation with himself, as he did in Adaptation.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things unfolds like a dying man's life, flashing before his eyes. On other occasions, it seems like the entire film takes place inside a snow globe that is slowly falling to the ground. There is sense of inevitability to it. Human beings, as The Young Woman says in one scene, are the only animals who understand the concept of mortality, which is why they've invented hope.
At Jake's parents' house, The Young Woman visits his childhood bedroom, which is littered with stacks of books and movies that he must have consumed as a kid. Here's where Netflix comes in. I'm Thinking of Ending Things benefits tremendously for having been released on streaming. In fact, it is in many ways designed to be viewed this way. For instance, when I first noticed changes in the physical appearances of Jake's parents — his father's hair seemed to have become shorter — I immediately paused and rewinded to reconfirm my suspicions. Moments later, of course, I realised that my eyes weren't playing tricks on me after all, and that a slight change in hairstyle was easily the most subtle transformation that the parents would undergo in that sequence. Similarly, the scene in Jake's bedroom positively begs you to pause and devour all the visual foreshadowing that it contains.
So when The Young Woman, on the drive back, begins an impromptu critique of John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, your mind immediately connects it to a fleeting glimpse of a Pauline Kael book lying on the rack in Jake's bedroom. "I suppose I watch too many movies," Jake tells The Young Woman, and she replies, "Everyone does. It's a societal malady."
Movies and books and culture of all sorts is the prism through which Jake looks back on his life, if we pursue the theory that the entire film plays out in the mind of a dying man — the high school janitor who makes occasional appearances, but plays a larger role in the movie's wilfully obtuse third act. For instance, the film's final scene is lifted, almost shot-for-shot, from a similar scene in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind. And Kaufman, as we know, has always been interested in the minds of men who like to mythologize themselves. This is him contemplating his own legacy.
While it is possible for some viewers to have an emotional reaction to I'm Thinking of Ending Things, it's hardly as accessible as Kaufman's best film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It is neither as imperceptible as Synecdoche, New York. It is, however, another notch on Netflix's bedpost, as it continues its quest to lure every auteur under the sun into its boudoir. Watch, and watch again.