It must be exhausting being Charlie Kaufman. For two decades now, Hollywood’s most madly inspired writer turned writer-director has been continually offering tours of the space between his ears. Even when Kaufman’s movies aren’t explicitly opening wormholes into the brain, they still feel like streams of his own consciousness, breathlessly expressing every thought that’s raced through his noggin. And what a confounding house of mirrors he’s built up there — a labyrinth of high concepts, existential anxieties, and pessimistically big ideas. You know that old theory that intelligence brings about unhappiness? Exhibit A might be the collected works of this great American filmmaker and thinker, whose filmography is basically an MRI scan of troubled genius. What’s troubling Kaufman this time? Nothing less than the nagging sense that the life of the mind, that reality as we perceive it, is all there is. “It’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than inside your own head,” Jake (Jesse Plemons) says to Lucy (Jessie Buckley) early on in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the filmmaker’s latest maddening plunge down the rabbit hole of his boundless imagination. Is Kaufman assuring us or himself? By the end of this strange movie — possibly his most uncompromising and discombobulating, which really is saying something — we have no guarantee that the world it depicts exists outside of someone’s head. The real question may just be whose?
The film is a head trip in the form of a road trip, with dashes of a haunted-house movie and one hell of a long day’s journey into night. Jake has invited Lucy, his girlfriend of just a few weeks, to come meet his parents in southern New York, a long drive through worsening weather. The two are smart and anxious millennials; they talk in heady references, though often at one another instead of to each other. They seem superficially compatible, but the thick, stormy cloud of breakup does feel imminent. Lucy is thinking of ending things, after all — something she keeps repeating to herself through her running internal monologue that keeps getting stepped on by intrusions of chitchat. (It’s another reminder of how Kaufman does voice-over more cleverly, purposefully and emphatically than almost anyone working today.) For a while, the film coasts on the squirmy, cringe-comic apprehension of a young relationship, put to a perhaps premature test by the conversational demands of a long-term car ride.
Kaufman didn’t pull these characters and plot from his own labyrinthine mind, though. They come instead from a novel by Iain Reid of the same title — a slim exercise in sustained unease. Not that any kind of source material has ever stopped this filmmaker from indulging his own neurotic personality or following his own runaway train of thought. This is, remember, the same screenwriter who turned a nonfiction Susan Orlean bestseller about plants into a comedic chronicle about his own agonizing struggles to adapt it. But, there’s no such meta framework to I’m Thinking of Ending Things. All the same, Kaufman makes the story his own, honing in on the offhand surrealism of the book and pulling on it like a loose thread, unraveling much of Reid’s mounting psychological horror in favor of something more unconventional, more intrinsically… well, Kaufman.
Before long, the relationship comedy elements begin to disassemble and reassemble, always threatening to morph into an outright horror flick. It’s when the two lovebirds pass out of the gathering snowstorm and into Jake’s childhood home that the film’s already fragile impression of reality starts to come apart at the seams. His mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis) are vaguely unhinged caricatures of lonely, chipper, culturally removed American parenthood; they tilt I’m Thinking of Ending Things into a grotesque, sitcom farce of social discomfort. Kaufman, a veteran at wringing laughs from life’s small humiliations, makes a feast out of this familiar gauntlet of meet-the-parents awkwardness. At the same time, he also floods the narrative with waves of cognitive dissonance and slippery, nightmare subjectivity. The basic foundational details of these characters and their relationships keep shifting under our feet like quicksand. No matter how vivid and moving they can be, are the parents even real? Or are they just phantoms, flickers of memory trapped in the projector beam of Jake’s recollections? How did Jake and Lucy even meet? What does Lucy do for a living? Wait, is Lucy even her name? Kaufman continually sneakily alters details — character names, the age they look, the clothes they wear, the backstories they share — in many ways reviving the grim absurdism of his brilliantly morose directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York.
There’s a whole movie in that drafty, temporally treacherous farmhouse. But most of I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes place in the front seat of a car, with flashes to a mysterious, lonely janitor (Guy Boyd). It’s primarily a two-hander, though there are enough topics of philosophical conversation to fill a book much thicker than Reid’s. Jake and Lucy trade quotes from William Wordsworth to David Foster Wallace, carrying on a mutating, annotated debate that reveals the fault lines in their romance while also hinting that they may be better matched than Lucy fears. The terror of aging and facing failures, common fixations in Kaufman’s work, slithers into the discussion through pregnant pockets of silence. More often than not, the movie is like an echo chamber of an unsettled mind, bouncing from topic to topic and arguing with itself. It can be tiring, in its endless pontification, as the feeling of being locked in your own head on a sleepless night, unable to shut your brain off. Kaufman not only turns insufferableness into a kind of philosophical sweet spot, but zaps the endless chatter with flights of bizarre fancy: animated interludes, hilarious movies-within-the-movie, even a spot-on parody of a certain thematically relevant, middlebrow Oscar winner (Ahem… A Beautiful Mind *cough*).
What grounds the film, crucially, is the performances by its two leads. Plemons, playing another of Kaufman’s brainy introverts, is tasked with a tricky tightrope walk: He must be mellow and prickly, recessive and domineering, intelligent and obtuse. And its a brilliant showing on his part, hinting at heartbreaking truths about Jake that the movie can’t bring itself to vocalize. But just as brilliant is Buckley, who’s remarkable in another even trickier role. The Irish actor has showed her talents many times before, but in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, she seems at all times to be playing multiple versions of Lucy: not just the dry-witted one we first meet, preoccupied with doubts about the relationship she’s stumbled into, but also the version her boyfriend sees, and the one his parents want to see, and even one possessed by the ghost of Pauline Kael, as she recites Kael’s review of a John Cassavetes classic verbatim to Jake. It’s a performance that internalizes all of Kaufman’s notions about the shifting, unknowable self, while still being identifiably human.
Looked at one way, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a puzzle box with a solution. Reid solved it for his readers, in an overly rational and expository ending. Without reinterpreting the novel, Kaufman abstracts its revelations, productively scrambling a “twist” into something funnier, sadder, possibly psychotic but still overwhelmingly touching: a requiem of pure expressive irresolution, like the final minutes of An American in Paris (with cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s work turning from dread-filled claustrophobia into a wonderous winter wonderland). I’m Thinking of Ending Things is guaranteed to frustrate anyone looking for even the relative dramatic accessibility of, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But in capturing something akin to the life of a mind, Kaufman once again makes you grateful for the window into his own — and, maybe, that it’s not luckily your own. Which is to say, his brain is an exiting place to visit, but who in their right mind would want to live there full-time? Enchantingly beautiful in its headiness and soul-clinching in its pessimism, Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an intoxicating trip down the rabbit holes of consciousness; a marvelous and deeply melancholic mind trap.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix