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‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Isn’t a Charlie Kaufman Classic, but It’s Classic Charlie Kaufman

The writer-director returns with a dense, cerebral Netflix film that’s part horror, part cringe comedy, and fully ready to wreck your date night

Netflix/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

A cartoon pig trudges down a high school hallway, trailed by the elderly janitor. I should be more specific: A [redacted] cartoon pig trudges down a high school hallway, trailed by the [redacted] elderly janitor. Ah, sorry about that, I changed my mind. The redactions are not spoilers, exactly: I’m Thinking of Ending Things—which hit Netflix last Friday and is written and directed, in all its dreary + eerie + fucked up + polarizing + baffling glory, by your old pal Charlie Kaufman—is not exactly spoilable. Let’s just say the redactions are horror-adjacent. Let’s just say I feel terrible for anybody who stumbles across this sucker due to some sort of Netflix algorithm catastrophe. (You fart around in the Psychological Thrillers section and you get what you deserve.) Let’s just say if you pick this for date night, your significant other might not let you pick the movie again for months.

Your old pal Kaufman, of course, is a date night terrorizer by design. As a superstar screenwriter—1999’s mighty Being John Malkovich and 2002’s Adaptation earned him Oscar nominations, and 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind brought him the win—he specialized in trippy, cerebral, whimsically bleak tales of cracked identity and bad romance. As, more recently, a cultier writer-director—starting with 2008’s Synecdoche, New York and 2015’s Anomalisa, which scored him his fourth screenwriting Oscar nom—he got way less whimsical and much, much, much bleaker. (I loved Synecdoche, which ends with the word die, and I never want to think about it again.)

He’s fantastically unpredictable. He’s uncomfortably intense. He’s spectacularly dour to an extent that is almost, but not quite, funny. He likes puppets and psychedelic animation and other multimedia head trips. It helps, watching these movies, if you’re scared of death; it helps if you’re scared of your own reflection; it helps if you’re scared of girls. It helps if you understand that at this point you’re not so much watching a Charlie Kaufman joint as surviving it.

And so it goes with I’m Thinking of Ending Things, based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Canadian author Iain Reid. The movie is remarkably faithful, at least plot-wise, to its source material, given that for Adaptation Kaufman wrote a whole-ass screenplay about the bleak + whimsical folly of trying to adapt a semi-famous book.

Reid’s novel is narrated by a young woman going on her first long car trip with her new boyfriend, Jake, to meet his parents at his childhood farmhouse. It’s snowing. She’s thinking of ending … things. Creepy parents. Creepy dinner. Creepy basement. Jake keeps getting … creepier. Some other creepy guy keeps calling her. Afterward, despite the blizzard, they stop at a creepy ice-cream joint, then at a way creepier old high school. Somewhere in there is a [redacted] pig, but not a [redacted] cartoon pig, an elderly janitor but not a [redacted] elderly janitor. Here are pages 196 and 197.

It’s that kind of deal. It’s horror, albeit psychological or “elevated” horror, to the extent you’re willing to stomach that term at all. The shock ending is not totally shocking, if you’ve read or watched enough creepy thrillers, but in 200 or so deceptively breezy pages there is plenty of dense, unsettling atmosphere with which to enrich and/or pollute your weary brain.

In the movie, vivacious Irish actress Jessie Buckley (she of righteous country-music drama Wild Rose) plays the woman, and the mighty Jesse Plemons plays Jake, patrolling as usual the fine line between everyman decency and chilly unease. She’s great, but Buckley’s got it rough. In either medium, her character—unnamed in the film, or rather her name and occupation and whole-ass personality keep changing—is clearly less a human woman than somebody’s wobbly idea of a human woman, and the drama lies in discovering whose idea she is, exactly.

Her only real goal, then, is to survive, and principally to survive her dinner with Jake’s parents, which is the centerpiece of the movie and also is unbearable. Just galactically awkward, like that episode of The Office everyone loves but 10 times longer and worse, like every single mumblecore movie playing on the same theater screen simultaneously, like a full-body cringe that grinds your whole skeleton into dust. This is the point at which date night—Jake’s, and also yours—disastrously implodes.

As the parents in question, Toni Collette and David Thewlis grimace and contort and cry-laugh and softly groan and silently shriek and in general carry on like Tool-video iterations of themselves. It is an Oscar-feted screenwriter’s self-parody of Weird Parents on a Farm grotesquery; it is not to be borne. I get that Collette, in particular, excels at this sort of domestic-horror perversity, à la Hereditary, a modern elevated-horror classic I am too much of a scaredy-cat to engage with beyond its Wikipedia plot summary. But every moment either of these people is onscreen is unpleasant far beyond any consideration for the plot, for the suffocating atmosphere, or for me personally. The fact that Jake’s mom and dad seem to be aging and de-aging from scene to scene is secondary as a matter of narrative intrigue to your overwhelming desire to light your TV on fire.

Is this supposed to be a horror movie? A campy melodrama? A cringe comedy? A date-from-hell disaster flick? That last one sure seems to be Kaufman’s primary interest, to the shock of nobody. His script follows the novel’s general beats but garnishes them with a series of Bad Internet Boyfriend arguments between Buckley and Plemons, most of these transpiring during the extra-long car scenes, snowstorm swirling, claustrophobia deepening. The boy blathers on about David Foster Wallace, and Anna Kavan’s 1967’s sci-fi novel Ice, and famous musicals (Oklahoma! especially), and Oscar Wilde, and Mussolini. In response, the woman recites an ultra-bleak poem called “Bone Dog” and, much later, during a heated argument about John Cassavetes’s 1974 Maximum Film Twitter drama A Woman Under the Influence, she shifts personalities again and starts reciting from Pauline Kael’s IRL New Yorker review of the movie: “We often can’t tell whether the characters are meant to be unconscious of what they’re doing or whether it’s Cassavetes who’s unconscious.” Their last fight is about the sleaziness of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

This is all part of the time-honored Charlie Kaufman experience: the meta grandstanding, the wanton destabilization. Very random shit happens in this movie. (Robert Zemeckis, an ever-so-slightly more conventional Hollywood director, catches a stray bullet to the head out of absolutely nowhere.) Buckley (in her vivacity) and Plemons (in his increasing hostility) gamely sell all of it, but the question won’t go away: Is this supposed to be a horror movie? What else is it supposed to be? As in the book, our heroine is forced to venture down into the farmhouse’s ultra-creepy basement with scratch marks high on the doors, but this time not before a lengthy, playful conversation with her boyfriend about the whole don’t-go-down-in-the-basement cliché. The scary parts of this movie aren’t allowed to be scary; for your director, full-body discomfort is the most frightening thing of all, and so the various jump-scares you’re expecting dissolve instead into wincing shrugs. I’d have liked this movie better if it were way too terrifying for me to risk ever watching it at all.

What I’m telling you is that a two-plus-hour dirge with a climactic scene in which a [redacted] cartoon pig trudges down a high school hallway trailed by the [redacted] elderly janitor is a horror movie—a surrealist, deconstructed horror movie, sure, but nonetheless—whether it likes it or not. But Kaufman can’t bring himself to end things the only way they can logically end. In lieu of the novel’s gruesome closing flourish—bleak, yes; earned, mostly—he instead wraps up a straight-WTF set piece, as though somebody threw the Charlie Kaufman card deck high into the air and then made a poker hand out of the first five cards that hit the ground. Diorama-like set. Bizarre live performance. Incongruous song. Extra-cringey old-person makeup. Standing-O public recognition as a bitter salve for crushing personal devastation. You get it. You get him. But not quite the movie he made or the people who appear in it. He’s conscious of what he’s doing. That makes one of us.