Charlie Kaufman's 'I'm Thinking Of Ending Things' Is A Wildly Inventive Comic Thriller

Sep 11, 2020
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Five years after his animated feature "Anomalisa," the filmmaker Charlie Kaufman is having a busy year. In addition to publishing his first novel, "Antkind," he's written and directed a new, darkly comic thriller called "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things." It's now streaming on Netflix. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: One of the weirdest things about Charlie Kaufman's movies is how normal they can make weirdness seem. In his brilliantly deadpan scripts for "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," surfing your subconscious or someone else's feels like the most natural thing in the world. The two earlier movies he's directed, "Synecdoche, New York" and "Anomalisa," are just as conceptually out there, but they always start off feeling pretty grounded, tethered to mundane reality.

For all their twisted, dreamy logic, Kaufman's stories never veer too far from depressingly relatable subjects, like loneliness, failure and mortality. Those interior emotional states are very much at the melancholy heart of "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things," his third film as a director and a movie that you might fall in love with, as I did, or reject entirely, as many already have. It's based on a thriller by the Canadian novelist Iain Reid, which makes it Kaufman's first adaptation since, well, "Adaptation." And like that 2002 film, it's a reminder that he's incapable of tackling another writer's story in straightforward fashion.

It begins with a young couple played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons driving through an Oklahoma blizzard. The boyfriend's name is Jake, but after a while, you realize you're not sure what the girlfriend's name is. It could be Lucy (ph) or Louisa (ph) or something else entirely. She's billed as the young woman in the credits. This seems odd at first, since she is the movie's narrator and appears to dominate the story's perspective. I say appears to because in a Charlie Kaufman movie, where false fronts and psychological switcharoos (ph) abound, you never really know.

As they drive through the wind and snow, the young woman carries on a lively conversation with herself. She's the one who's thinking of ending things, not in the suicidal sense, but in the we should break up sense. They're on their way to visit Jake's parents, which suggests that he's more committed to their relationship than she is. And whenever Jake opens his mouth, which is pretty often, we start to understand why. He's a moderately nicer version of the schlubby, socially maladroit artists and intellectuals that Kaufman has always liked putting front and center. Jake, in his quiet droning way, likes to dominate a conversation, which in this case means making elaborate references to William Wordsworth, Leo Tolstoy and the history of the Broadway musical.

Once they arrive at his family's farmhouse, Jake talks less and starts retreating into himself. That's around the time we meet his almost unclassifiably eccentric parents, played by David Thewlis and Toni Collette.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS")

DAVID THEWLIS: (As Father) Here they come.

TONI COLLETTE: (As Mother) Oh (laughter).

THEWLIS: (As Father) Was the drive OK?

JESSE PLEMONS: (As Jake) Yeah, fine.

COLLETTE: (As Mother) So glad to meet you, Louisa. Jake has told us so much about you.

JESSIE BUCKLEY: (As Young Woman) Oh. He's told me so much about both of you, too.

COLLETTE: (As Mother) Oh. And you came anyway? (Laughter).

CHANG: The dinner table conversation that follows is one of the most bizarre sequences in a movie that consists almost entirely of bizarre sequences. Inconsistencies keep popping up in the dialogue, most of them having to do with Buckley's character. If her name is a mystery, so is her occupation. Is she a painter, a waitress or a quantum physicist? But it's not just the storylines that keeps shifting every few seconds. Pay attention to the clothes the characters are wearing and the color of their hair. Kaufman delights in planting little visual clues in the frame, forcing you to watch as well as listen closely. He uses tight shots and frequent close-ups that add to the sense of claustrophobia. And he nudges the story into almost, but not quite horror territory, complete with a weird dog and a creepy basement.

In the story's second half, our couple head back out into the blizzard and continue to talk up a storm of their own. The young woman has her own truckload of cultural references this time. There's a priceless bit in which she starts quoting whole chunks of Pauline Kael's review of the John Cassavetes classic, "A Woman Under The Influence." Maybe that's the kind of gag only a film critic could love or hate. But the more Kaufman's characters run their mouths, the more their back-and-forth seems to express something desperately sad about heterosexual relationships, specifically about some men's compulsion to control what women think and say.

Whether we need another movie that picks at the gnawing insecurities of the male ego is a fair question, but "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things" is too wildly inventive to be reduced to just another movie. There's so much going on beneath its restless surface, and so much of it is connected to the two lead performances. Buckley, so good in dramas like "Beast" and "Wild Rose," is astoundingly versatile here. She keeps adapting to the script's embellishments and nailing everyone. And Plemons, often casts for his flat, comically morose affect, finds aching depths in a character you want to dismiss but can't. Their relationship may not be long for this world, but as movie couples go, they're awfully hard to get out of your mind.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for the L.A. Times.

On Monday's show, we speak with novelist, playwright and actor Ayad Akhtar. His play "Disgraced" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013. He grew up in the Midwest, the son of Pakistani immigrants. His new novel "Homeland Elegies" draws on elements of his own life and explores the experience of Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 world. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.