What was this film? Usually, the start of a review should ease a reader into a movie: outline the plot, discuss the background surrounding the project, etc. But in truth, Director Charlie Kaufman himself cared little for structure and precedent in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, so why should I? The film is filled to bursting with rumination, contemplation and all the other ations. It’s a supremely ambitious and macabre piece of cinema, it can’t be denied. But unfortunately, it just doesn’t work.
For the sake of my own sanity I will do my best to provide a premise, but be warned that the following description is akin to an onion: by the film’s end you’ll have ripped off the surface and chopped it all up in floods of tears. I like to think that this onion analogy is the sort of thing Kaufman would fill his scripts with in between various pondering about the meaning of life, but I digress.
Jessie Buckley is Lucy (or is she?), a shy 20 something physicist (or is she?) on the way to meet her boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) parents for the first time. As she says multiple times in the opening ten minutes, she’s thinking of ending things (with Jake presumably), and the film deals with the ensuing evening.
First of all, I very much enjoyed the first hour of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It immediately feels completely Kaufman, from the bizarre yet intellectual script to the adorably insecure characters. The highlights are of course the performances. Buckley is proving to be a serious name in Hollywood and Plemons is reliably excellent as the nervous Jake. Toni Collette and David Thewlis are marvellous as his parents, having to deliver hilariously awkward lines and be just generally off kilter in everything they do.
But then… what made the first hour perfectly watchable disappeared. Buckley and Plemons got back in the car and the film tailed off into a series of long winded conversations on subjects ranging from poetry to the critical reception to Women Under the Influence. It was here that I wished Kaufman thought less about Lucy ending things and actually thought about ending the film itself, because damn, it’s a downright slog.
It’s a common issue for this kind of intellectual fare that filmmakers struggle to marry existential rumination with entertainment. A prevailing sense of dourness merged with a refusal to strip the film of excess flab meant that the viewing experience was irreversibly soured. I loved 2019’s The Lighthouse, a film in which the darkness and ambiguity became reality through black and white cinematography. But unlike Kaufman’s work, The Lighthouse was overwhelmingly self-referential and invited the audience in on the madness, whereas I’m thinking of ending things feels awfully distant by comparison. It’s musings aren’t so much surrealist and bizarre as plodding and cumbersome.
I wish I enjoyed the film more, as it’s a genre which usually appeals to me. Unfortunately, it’s structural flaws and Kaufman’s tendency to err on the side of the overly-ambiguous made it an unenjoyable time at the movies.