Charlie Kaufman tackles horror and isolation in his strangest film yet.
Ever since his first script Being John Malkovich in 1999, Charlie Kaufman has established himself as one of the most endearingly esoteric voices in film. He is, after all, the guy who got a fictional person nominated for an Academy Award. This reputation has only deepened as he’s transitioned into the full auteurs seat of writer/director, with no filter between his concepts and execution. He has always made films that explored common human experience in unique and unpredictable ways that can be equal parts unnerving and intoxicating.
Yet even by that standard, his latest film, an adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is quite possibly Kaufman’s most strange film to date. This is because the structure of Kaufman’s storytelling has always functioned within sets of defined rules that are presented clearly and logically, even if those rules are at odds with how our actual world operates. The world is given a unique shape, and then the pieces start to move around that center. It can be strange and odd, but you rarely feel lost.
Ending Things intentionally has no center. Feeling lost and trapped is central to the conceit of the film, and thus Kaufman doesn’t allow much grounding. It is a form of psychological horror that is presented within Kaufman’s own language, where the world shifts without meaning or purpose. Existentialism and the search for human meaning in a seemingly meaningless world has been a common theme throughout Kaufman’s work; but here it shifts from subtext to text, as meaning becomes secondary to feeling.
Which is not to say the film is plotless exactly. A young woman (played by Jessie Buckley), whose name is never fully revealed, is going with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his family for the first time on the rural farm that he grew up on. They travel through a blizzard, and we learn early in the film that she is already planning on “ending things” with Jake. The first time she thinks this to herself, Jake seemingly hears her; it is our first clue that something is not quite right.
“Not quite right” is the tone for the rest of the story. The couple discuss everything from film theory and poetry to the nature of viruses and death. The first 22 minutes of the film are just a conversation between Jake and his girlfriend as they drive to his parents house; when they finally arrive, it takes another ten for his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis in transformative performances) to finally enter the scene.
Thus plays out a familiar experience to couples: the awkwardness of meeting the family of someone you have been living your life with, joining your stories together. The strange, unspoken communications, the tension around unsaid baggage. This is where Kaufman’s form of horror comes from, the dread that is inherent to being in new, unfamiliar places and not being sure when you can leave. The more time the young woman stays in the house, the more things unravel. Time starts to slip forwards and backwards, seeing increasingly aged and also younger versions of Jake’s parents. Jake disappears and reappears, constantly promising they’re just about to leave, but never quite going.
These sequences feel the most familiar to Kaufman fans; the surreal nature will remind viewers of the dreamscapes in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the way the world disappears and reappears and seems to rapidly deteriorate. However, unlike that film, we are given no reason why these things are happening. Simply that they are. There is the existential dread again. “Dread” in general is the word for the film, which operates in unknowns and never quite explains itself.
There are two benefits the film has to keep you invested in what can be at times a meandering experience. First, Kaufman’s skills both as a writer and a visual storyteller are on full display here. His early collaborators, like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, have had a great influence on his own visual style, creating minimalistic frames that use concise storytelling skills that give you glimpses of what you need and little more.
The other boon the film can boast is that the cast are all phenomenal. Plemons shifts between quiet timidness and bursts of intense anger; Buckley similarly shifts in and out of confidence and fear, putting on a brave face into the unknown but always feeling out of place. And Collette and Thewlis, through both old age make-up and masterful physical performance, both play about four different ages of characters who communicate both warmth and menace. They are walking nightmares, but the kind that sink under your skin over time rather than jump out at you.
I want to avoid spoilers to the best of my ability, but that is an important disclaimer to know going into this film: the final act, when things truly take a turn for the bizarre, never fully explain what precisely is going on. The grounding to give context for everything you just saw never comes, and things spiral further and further, unraveling as you are desperately trying to grab onto anything knowable or real. The film is never scary precisely, but it is relentlessly unnerving, placing you in unknowable landscapes that are at once familiar and alien.
After consulting a synopsis of the novel and discussing it with a friend who read the book, I have a better sense of what is going on in the finale…but not entirely. But Kaufman and his actors are less interested in telling a story than capturing a feeling, that universal human experience of the uncertain, and the weight of human awareness. If Eternal Sunshine is a movie about the malleability of memory and relationship, and Adaptation is a film about how perception changes our sense of reality, Ending Things is, if nothing else, an exploration of how alienating the world can be, even in the company of others. How you can see the world in all its complex detail, but never truly know anyone else, not really. You can only know yourself, and everything else simply shifts around you, changing landscapes. Holding on tight is the best plan for survival, and trying to make sense the best you can as the ride takes you along.
I’m Thinking About Ending Things premieres on Netflix on September 4th.