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Surreal ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ is classic Kaufman

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You never quite know what you’re going to get with a Charlie Kaufman project. Well … that’s not ENTIRELY true. You know that you’re going to get something unconventional and bizarre and challenging, but you don’t know what specific flavor of unconventional/bizarre/challenging you’re going to get.

Kaufman’s latest is “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” a film he both directed and adapted from the Iain Reid novel of the same name. It is typically atypical, a difficult-to-define work of psychological not-quite-horror that is unsettling to watch even while requiring the viewer’s close attention.

The film is marked by the fluidity and flexibility we’ve come to expect from Kaufman; even while watching, one can never be quite sure what they are watching. Reality and fantasy blur together, reveling in the active and deliberate narrative inconsistency while also painting a compelling portrait of a relationship that is not at all what it seems to be. It is smart and well-crafted and unrelentingly weird – classic Kaufman.

Our story revolves around a young woman (Jessie Buckley, “Dolittle”) who is on her way to meet the parents of her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons, “The Irishman”) at their isolated farmhouse. She’s struggling with whether to continue with the relationship; it’s still new – certainly early to be meeting the parents – and she’s having some second thoughts regarding whether it will work in the long term. The conversation ebbs and flows on the way, but her inner monologue is a constant (and it occasionally seems as though Jake hears more than he’s meant to).

The pair pushes through an oncoming snowstorm and arrives at Jake’s family farm, where things start to get … strange. We meet Jake’s mother (Toni Collette, “Knives Out”) and father (David Thewlis, “Eternal Beauty”); it quickly becomes clear that something is off about them. Jake issues cryptic warnings about them and the house. As the evening progresses, the young woman (whose name is never firmly established) finds herself moving through the house and encountering different versions of Jake’s parents – young and vibrant, elderly and infirm – though she never seems to fully register the strangeness therein.

She demands that Jake take her home – she has work to do – and the pair make their way back out into the blizzard. But as the weather worsens, the interactions between the two take on a surreal and sinister tone. Is the young woman a medical student? A poet? An aspiring film critic? Her shifting identity is matched by Jake’s mercurial moods, with the two of them winding up taking an eventful and unsettling detour.

Throughout, the action is occasionally interrupted by seemingly unconnected scenes following a high school janitor (Guy Boyd, “The Report”) quietly discharging his various duties over the course of a workday. Seemingly unconnected, yes … but are they?

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a particularly difficult film to synopsize. Not necessarily because of spoilers – although there are some moments that could be spoiled – but because of the baseline surrealness of the experience. It’s a story that isn’t bound by traditional storytelling mores; Kaufman’s never been one to make it easy, but he’s particularly challenging when in charge of directing his own scripts.

And this film is most definitely a challenge. It’s a movie that constantly shifts gears with little warning, sometimes giving the impression that there isn’t much in the way of rhyme or reason behind the choices being made. However, that impression is inaccurate – it’s not that rhyme or reason are absent so much as that they are somewhat inscrutable. Kaufman is deliberate and specific about what he’s doing, even if we the viewers may not be able to easily connect the dots that got us here.

As with much of Kaufman’s work, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is largely about identity. It’s about who we are versus the image we present to the world around us, as well as the challenges that come with trying to find truth in our connections and the slipperiness that comes with trying to nail down a definition of ourselves.

The film is dense with references and metareferences, creating absurd jokes and moving monologues with quick hits and deep cuts drawn from intellectual discourse and popular culture alike. We get a long monologue pulled from the works of Pauline Kael and a brief discussion of David Foster Wallace as both thinker and cautionary tale. There’s a hilarious blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke about Robert Zemeckis and a delightful visual reference to “A Beautiful Mind.” Oh, and the musical “Oklahoma” serves as something of a motif.

None of this works without strong performances. Buckley and Plemons are absolutely electric throughout; the chemistry between them simply sings, only increasing in effectiveness as their shared awkwardness waxes and wanes. Buckley is tasked with shifting gears while also maintaining a degree of disconnect and manages it all beautifully. Plemons is tight and insular, making his occasional outbursts – intellectual and otherwise – all the more effective. So much of this movie is just the two of them in the car, yet they manage to keep things kinetic in an interesting way even as Kaufman uses his camera to keep us ever-so-slightly removed from them.

Collette and Thewlis both make full use of their incredible talents, finding ways to embrace the utter weirdness of their constantly changing circumstances while still grounding their performances. In the hands of lesser actors, it would have been a mess. Collette and Thewlis handle it with confident grace. Boyd does a lot with a little, while we get some brief-but-strong supporting turns by Hadley Robinson, Gus Birney and Abby Quinn (among others).

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is precisely the sort of movie we’ve come to expect from Charlie Kaufman – particularly when he’s the guy steering the ship. It is a confounding and challenging piece of work, a film that steadfastly refuses to be anything other than itself. Anchored by some exceptional performances and driven by its smooth embrace of the surreal, this exciting and idiosyncratic movie isn’t for everyone, but if you like it, you’ll almost certainly love it.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 06 September 2020 10:23

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