Few filmmakers dig as deep as Charlie Kaufman does into existentialism. What makes us tick, how we connect, the meaning of life…these are the major themes in all of his work whether it’s screenplays for BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, or movies he’s directed too like SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and ANOMALISA. Kaufman’s characters are almost always lonely, damaged, and desperate for love. His new film I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS is no exception, only here the loneliness haunting the characters contributes to a haunting feel throughout the film. It feels like a horror movie, with the characters stuck in an absolute hellish existence.
The 2016 debut novel of the same name by Canadian writer Ian Reid contained the same themes near and dear to Kaufman. Reid’s novel was told by an unnamed narrator who was accompanying her new boyfriend Jake to the farmhouse he grew up in for a visit to meet his parents. The experience was fraught with strife, not only from the tensions between them on the car ride through a blizzard but there at his home too when she meets his bizarre family. Throughout, her restless thoughts ping-ponged back and forth between feelings of affection and disgust, and the story examined big-ticket issues like love and death, as well as a searing put-down of small-town America.
It’s all perfectly suited to Kaufman’s sensibilities, and indeed, he has faithfully adapted Reid’s story, albeit with vivid dialogue replacing the narrator’s inner thoughts. The Young Woman, as she’s known in the story, is played by Jessie Buckley, a character who’s overflowing with contradictions. She’s bold and confident one moment, paranoid and recessive the next. Her boyfriend Jake, played by Jesse Plemons, is wildly inconsistent too. He speaks calmly almost constantly, but for every kind and soothing sentence he delivers, his next one sounds like an eerie whisper from a serial killer.
Despite running hot and cold with each other, they manage to find a lot of commonalities in their still-new relationship. They rigorously discuss philosophy, share a passion for the arts, and mine a laissez-faire attitude towards fashion and appearance. He rattles off an aficionado’s expertise about Rodgers and Hammerstein and enthusiastically sings a ditty from OKLAHOMA, while she delivers a poem she wrote with the skill of an extemporaneous actor. In most ways, they seem to be cut from the same cloth.
Still, she privately wonders if all that is enough to keep their bond. She asks, over and over again in her private thoughts, whether she should end things. (Hmm, could this mercurial woman also be referring to her very life?) Jake does their relationship no favors when shortly after arriving at the farmhouse, he gives her a tour of the barn that could give Leatherface from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE a run for his money. Jake dwells on the lurid details of how a couple of pigs in the barn were eaten alive by maggots and he glosses all too callously over the frozen baby lambs tossed aside amongst some hay.
As Jay Wadley’s appropriately disturbing score rumbles over such scenes, the film plays like something from the horror genre. Is Jake a creeper, a modern-day Ed Gein, about to turn her into his latest victim? Or is something else going to be the victim of his destructive inklings? Such suspicions are furthered when Jake finally takes her inside to meet his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette). The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as these two turn out to be utterly creepy and provide no comfort for the visiting girl. Shrill, petty, they even insult the pictures she’s taken of her paintings when she shows them on her cellphone. And they drive Jake nuts.
Adding more to the unease is a dog that seems to disappear at will, strange scratchings unexplained on the basement door, and a dinner that no one touches. Then there is the haunting series of photographs on the wall of Jake as a child with one shot of him looking remarkably like her.
To share more of the mystery would be to betray the cleverness of the script, but suffice it to say, Kaufman guides us through a journey that David Lynch would envy. Plemons and Buckley play up their characters’ unease, paranoia, and increasing frustrations perfectly. Collette and Thewlis can play almost anything and they play weird and weirder fantastically. And veteran character actor Guy Boyd shines too in is mostly mute and heartbreaking turn as a school janitor.
Kaufman throws in some clever bits showcasing his contempt for Hollywood including sly snipes at rom-com’s and Robert Zemeckis that earn the film’s biggest laughs. The production design is expertly claustrophobic throughout, from Jake’s car to that dank barn to the horrifically, wall-papered house. Kaufman even incorporates a delicate, little dance number in the third act that is both lovely and unsettling.
Like most of Kaufman’s work, there is a certain arms-length quality to this one, and it can be as chilly as the stormy landscape seen onscreen. Ultimately though, his film manages to be quite moving, a mournful elegy to lives lost in a wasteland. He gives us a lot to think about as we watch the credits roll, and it’s always good when cinema can do more of that.