Ever since he abandoned the safe confines of screenwriting and decided to direct his material for the screen, I’ve had a weird relationship with Charlie Kaufman’s work. Like most self-pitying sad boys of a given age, I grew up worshiping him as a patron saint. His collaborations with Spike Jonze, George Clooney, and Michel Gondry (a viewing of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at a radio preview screening when I was an impressionable young teenager helped to set me on the path I am now, frankly) were among my favorite films, though I found his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, insufferable when watching it in theaters a few years later. I vaguely attribute that to being firmly in the “kill yr idols” phase of my filmgoing life, as, even though I’m still bothered by aspects of it, I can appreciate why others love it so deeply. But Kaufman releases films so rarely nowadays that it almost feels like a special occasion when something drops. We only were graced by his presence on screens once in the last decade when he co-directed the stop-motion animation film Anomalisa back in 2015, and now, his new Netflix film I’m Thinking of Ending Things has returned to grace our 2020s with his skill and wit. Or has it?
Not really. If Tenet, the major release with which it shares a release date, is the smartest “dumb” movie you’ll see all year, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the dumbest “smart” movie currently available to watch. Each indulges its creator’s worst instincts. Both are stylized, incomprehensible puzzles meant to tease out a certain level of complexity in one fashion — Nolan’s film in its chaotic plotting, Kaufman’s in its psychology — and both feature nameless protagonists thrust into bizarre circumstances. The former is colorless and stark, though fun and consistently engaging, the latter is a colorless, empty dirge that bores when it intends to shake you to your very core.
Based on Ian Reid’s novel of the same name (Kaufman says “inspired by” in the notes for the film, but its deviations from the source are pretty much par for the course for any adaptation), I’m Thinking of Ending Things follows a young woman (Jessie Buckley, who is often the best part of otherwise uninteresting movies, like Beast and Wild Rose, and does solid work here) on a trip across the countryside with her boyfriend Jack (Jesse Plemons — no doubt Kaufman had fun with the casting, given its implications) to visit his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette). She has second thoughts about the relationship but doesn’t quite know how to express it to Jack, especially given that they’re on the way to meet his folks. They spend the way over chatting about things, making corny jokes, and listening to bits and pieces of Oklahoma! on the radio (yes, Oklahoma! plays a huge part in this, and I’m just actually curious now if I have some sort of genetic condition that prevents me from enjoying prestige Netflix titles that involve alluding heavily to musicals). There’s a small amount of tension between the two, but things start to get really weird when they arrive at the farm Jack grew up on. Jack’s parents’ ages shift constantly from scene to scene, their behaviors are odd and exaggerated, and Jack keeps growing angrier and angrier. She wants them to leave, but a variety of changing circumstances prevent her. And, on the ride home, she’ll discover some crazy facts about her own existence.
In the background of all of this, a janitor (Guy Boyd) at the local high school goes about his shift.
Much has been made about this being Kaufman’s foray into the horror genre, a label that the director says is inappropriate for the film, and I agree with him. This is a deeply layered psychological portrait of someone in extreme distress, as the title’s double entendre suggests, and many will find it discomforting or sad in its own way. I didn’t, really, given that this falls pretty low on the Come and See scale of soul-quaking eye-opening pain for me, frankly (a recent rewatch of The Day After, with all of its camp trappings, disturbed me far more than this ever would), but I recognize that I will probably be alone in that opinion. But Kaufman’s writing has never felt more stale or empty than it is on display here: his dialogue is missing its snap, his scenes are missing their wit or verve, and I personally am curious to see what people will think of Buckley’s role in this, especially in the larger context of Kaufman’s work. Women are generally a lens for the men in his films to see themselves through in a new light, even when they’re provided with a modicum of comeuppance, and I don’t necessarily think that’s changed here, especially given she may not be as central to the film’s narrative as one might hope. She’s not even given a solid name, for Christ’s sake.
As a director, Kaufman’s approach to the material is remarkably inert: much of the film is a series of increasingly fragmented and frustrating dialogues between Plemons and Buckley, and while both do their absolute best with the material, they just can’t totally make Kaufman’s flow-free asides about Guy Debord or Gena Rowlands enthralling. They recite fragments of poetry to one another, (Buckley truly commands attention during one Berryman-esque recital early on that gave me true hope for the film, before it was dashed against the rocks), debate film and art, and they’re constant agreement in their discussions — a polite sort of thing in conversational practice, though it’s mainly meant to stress something that I don’t really want to go into here, even though it’s not necessarily a spoiler — all of which nearly made my eyes glaze over. There are only so many ways one can shoot a conversation in a car, and if the dialogue isn’t particularly interesting, well, you just wind up feeling trapped in the car with our characters, engaging in freshman-level banalities about how full of despair the world is. The easy retort to that is that Kaufman intended for it to be as such, but that doesn’t make the experience any easier to endure.
He has more success when he’s finally able to change locations and move into the Plemons’ family dwelling, where his winding camera acts as a precursor to his characters’ movements in the surprisingly vast interiors of their homestead, and it’s in that roughly-forty minutes that the film comes alive in a number of ways. Sure, it’s still incredibly frustrating to be trapped at the table with Kaufman’s approximations of middle American families — and to be totally fair to Thewlis and Collette, their work here is weird and lovely — and their artsy, resentful children, but it keeps one’s attention. The major issue with it is that the film continues for another hour afterward, though the final descent into outright surrealism comes far, far too late for it to really make much of an impact. That final 10 minutes may very well blow the minds of younger viewers, much like a between-the-fingers watch of Hereditary brought certain kids into the fold of prestige “artsy” cinema and turned an A24 hoodie or hat into a fashion accessory at film school freshmen soirees in 2019. But to say that it’s as meaningful on an emotional or psychological level as, hell, anything in Synecdoche, New York, doesn’t feel right.
There’s just very little one can hang their hat on visually here, and between the muted colors (which, on an HDR-equipped television, make even more muddy and flat, even with the recommended settings turned on) and the 4:3 aspect ratio make-at-home viewing a chore. There is a small theatrical release for I’m Thinking of Ending Things happening in cities around the country, and I imagine that’s perhaps the operative way to see it, where proper masking and, you know, a darkened room, might enhance the viewing experience, but it’s difficult to recommend on a purely visual level, as a Netflix watch. I’ve always wondered why, in the seemingly limitless level of creative freedom that the streaming giant gives their creators, why more directors don’t take advantage of the fact that they’re primarily making something for at-home audiences, and Kaufman is a great example of that impulse — that what makes good cinema elsewhere is a good fit for home viewing — backfiring in a miserable way.
But for some reason, I kept thinking of David Lynch during the whole of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (a comparison that isn’t helped by Lynch’s use of the whole damn TV screen as well as Kaufman spotlighting David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in a scene and in dialogue, which features the author’s fantastic piece about the making of Lost Highway), and certain choices that Kaufman makes throughout — his occasional point-of-view shots of a car winding down rural roads, his gentle maxim-filled dialogue being delivered in comfortable monotone or complete exaggeration, and the rural surrealism — reminded me especially of Twin Peaks: The Return. Thematically, they reach similar ends by their conclusions, at least by in my approximation, and form psychological portraits of their central characters, even the ones that are truly unknowable. But Lynch’s decade-defining masterwork, which it almost feels wrong to compare anything to, had a number of factors that, depending on the viewer, could help alleviate the weirdness. Lynch, of course, is a more dynamic and innovative director, but he also had Mark Frost’s humor in the writing, a compelling mythos to complement the psychology, and a nearly twenty-hour runtime to indulge himself. But their perspectives on things is ultimately what sets them apart.
Kaufman has always concerned himself with the plight of the All-American Loser — John Cusack in Being John Malkovich, himself in Adaptation, Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine, Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, and Thewlis in Anomalisa, — and he’s never been afraid to indulge in some healthy empathy for their struggles. They’re men (yes, even here) with grand ambition and feeling who find something that makes them feel special and are ultimately either robbed of it by an exterior force, brought low by their desires and fail, or in a few rare cases, find some sort of tenuous happiness after their narrative journey. But in recent years, Kaufman’s nihilism — his outright acceptance of the fact that the world is full of bleating dumb sheep aside from a few great and lovely individuals, mainly, but his trite observations about the nature of one’s own death and the “invention of hope” don’t help either — has overtaken nearly every one of his thematic impulses as a storyteller, and here, we’re given the final end of it, in what may be his most immersive portrait of schlubby, self-pitying mediocrity — so much so that you don’t even realize it until the bitter end.
Where Lynch sees hope in human community and kindness, as a conduit for our best impulses and as a way to stave off the blackness of death and evil, Kaufman openly mocks such an impulse in his hoary parody of a corny romantic film (which, oddly enough, seems like a rebuke to Eternal Sunshine as well) that his protagonist watches mid-film. Lynch has always confronted his darker impulses and interrogates them (he’s even happy to indulge in some genuine nihilism himself, and this film feels like a half-hearted attempt at equalling the psychological depth and surrealist complexity of Mulholland Dr.), and typically finds more thematic resonance in doing so, but here, it feels that Kaufman has just finally given up. He’s been backed into a wall creatively by his choice to adapt a novel — remember when he wrote a whole film essentially parodying his writer’s block as an innovative response to it? — and bend it to his whims. Without a Gondry or Jonze or Dino Stampatopolus to make it come alive and to give it meaning in the filmmaking process, he has nothing to fall back on but his already-limited toolset. I’m Thinking of Ending Things gives him the chance to embrace his worst impulses, and he grips it in a bear-hug, squeezing all of the life and color out of it in the process.