I don’t really like admitting how much I like Family Guy, but there’s a fantastic joke in one of the early seasons about a Francis Ford Coppola film; The Godfather. Peter Griffin states his dislike with the fact that the film “insists on itself.” His son, Chris Griffin, comes back and shout’s, “That’s because it’s insistent and has a valid point to make!”
Both of these are valid points to make about Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, the Netflix original I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
The film follows a couple as they go to visit the man’s parents. The young woman (Jessie Buckley) is considering an end to the relationship between herself and Jake (Jesse Plemons), her boyfriend of seven weeks. We’ve all come to that threshold, the moment between two people in an intimate relationship where one or both has to make a decision on whether or not to continue. The two go to meet Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis) at their home in rural…well, America. Things begin to enter the surreal from this point.
Ian Reid’s intense and semi-disappointing novel, on which the film is based, takes a fairly straightforward view to the story’s conclusion and places breadcrumbs to follow throughout its prose. Kaufman, ever the cheeky bastard, takes a less blatant approach and enters the territory of the erratic. Long, uncomfortable conversations make up the majority of the film and there are only four principle characters to follow. There is no world outside of the couple’s existence, and even what little we get makes for a creeptastic series of what I can only describe as setpieces. Reid seemed focused on a finale to be built to, the payoff to all of his clever storytelling despite some of the familiar trappings his plot finds itself in. Kaufman, however, finds himself lost in a different field and he’s wound up more fascinating, though far from focused.
Jessie Buckley (whom I know from the miniseries Chernobyl and the 2017 film Beast) is a force of nature. She’s elemental and feels more honest than any other performance I’ve seen since mid-2019. It’s cruel, but her hesitance to enjoy any of the evening’s festivities or to express any of the true discomfort with the reality of the situation is familiar in a way most will be hesitant to admit. Jake’s difficulties with his mother, his mother’s irritation with herself, and both the mother and father’s frustration with each other, all are things that the young woman (as she’s constantly called in all pieces on the film I can find) isn’t able to truly engage with. It’s a bit too real for most viewers and many more seasoned in the reality of discomfort as entertainment.
I had serious issues with Reid’s novel, and while the film makes strides to find a more interesting path to follow it gets lost in its own cleverness. It has insistent, valid points to make about the strangeness of flailing relationships, be they familial or not, but it revels in the awkward meandering they go through as they breathe their last. Interpersonal relationships like this don’t wink out of existence or explode, at least most of the time. They often stagger forward until they collapse, all involved too weary to do anything but call it a day. I found a lot to love in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but even with all of the surrealism and the eerie-as-all-hell conclusion it just never amounted to more than a fascinating state of hypnotized exhaustion. I adore his directorial efforts (Synecdoche NY & Anomalisa) and some of his other screenplays have been just incredible (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation) but this just didn’t ring my bell so much as mesmerize me. It’s enjoyable in the way that a found object can be puzzled over and inspected again and again, but its existence as a film leans closer to baffling than it does engaging (though it leaps back and forth across that fence with reckless abandon).
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is currently streaming on Netflix