Lost in all the hype around the release of two surefire blockbusters with very different approaches to the current state of cinema, this weekend Netflix quietly debuted the first Charlie Kaufman film in five years: I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Kaufman’s enigmatic and absurd worlds—from Adaptation to Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—often hinge on big concepts and even bigger ideas. So while the director’s work may not have the same audience potential as Tenet or Mulan, it can really stick with you (Eternal Sunshine made Ars’ list of the best sci-fi ever, for instance). To a subset of film fans, this is definitely the most anticipated film of Labor Day weekend 2020.
The fact that Kaufman finally opted to partner with a major streaming service means I’m Thinking of Ending Things theoretically has the potential to help the filmmaker find his biggest audience, too. But, well… while I’m Thinking of Ending Things was always going to be somewhat bizarre, the most perplexing thing about it may be calling it a “Netflix film.” Prepare to hit play on the platform’s oddest release to date.
Home on the range
Quantum physics student Lucy (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) set out for rural Oklahoma farmland so she can meet his parents for the first time. The two haven’t been dating very long, but Lucy’s inner thoughts already suggest they won’t be dating much longer. “I should be excited, looking towards the first of many—but I’m not,” Lucy narrates early in their claustrophobic car ride. When they finally arrive? “Everything has to die, that’s the truth… it’s a uniquely human fantasy that things will get better, born, perhaps, out of a uniquely human understanding that they will not.”
But still, Lucy sees Jake as fine. He treats her nicely. He has interests and a drive to improve. And evidently family matters to him, because he’ll navigate what looks like a developing blizzard for this dinner. Lucy needs to get home tonight to make it to work in the morning, and Jake initially commits to that tight timeline, too.
The blizzard quickly becomes the least of Lucy’s concerns, though. Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) almost immediately come across as strange. Harmless, based on first impressions, but totally strange. And by the time dessert has been brought out, Lucy senses something’s up. She keeps getting missed calls from “Lucy.” The family dog won’t stop shaking off non-existent water. And pictures of baby Jake on the wall intermittently look a whole awful lot like baby Lucy. Jake warned her the old farmhouse didn’t have much to it, particularly its nondescript bedrooms upstairs and the unfinished basement beneath. But as the blizzard keeps worsening and Jake slowly loses his enthusiasm for heading back promptly, Lucy starts exploring what she believed to be a farmhouse but what increasingly seems to be some fixed place with very fluid definitions of time and reality.
Lucy, I don’t know what I’m seeing either
I’m Thinking of Ending Things leans so hard into the abstract that you can’t help but wonder what the full picture is even while your viewing is in progress. Normally, that’s part of the charm with a Kaufman film, but it’s a dangerous proposition with something exclusive to Netflix. In the pre-quarantimes, once you purchased a ticket for the theater, you were pot committed and focused only on the screen. But a streaming movie today has to compete for your attention again and again as you’re stuck at home with others and your phone is within arm’s reach. I’m Thinking of Ending Things will test many viewers’ commitment more than a few times over its two-hours-plus.
This project was envisioned for Netflix from the start, so it’s surprising how un-Netflix the final version feels. Yes, the streaming service has other examples of truly indulgent filmmaking (Roma) and meandering, methodically paced stories (The Irishman), but those films are the exceptions. Netflix more regularly excels at lean, fast-moving films across genres, from Extraction to To All the Boys I Loved Before to Dolemite Is My Name. By contrast, the first half hour of I’m Thinking of Ending Things takes place entirely in a dimly lit car with Lucy and Jake in close up. Things truly ratchet up when Lucy and Jake reach the farmhouse, but even that is fleeting. Soon Jake and Lucy escape back to their car, where lengthy discussions of filmmaker John Cassavetes’s 1974 thriller A Woman Under the Influence, David Foster Wallace’s legacy, and the nature of personality soon follow. “You’re being willfully obtuse,” Lucy says to Jake (and not to Kaufman, I think).
Overall, I’m Thinking of Ending Things comes off very stage play-y: minimal sets (the car, the farmhouse, a Dairy Queen knock-off, and a school), long scenes made of very little action and very in-depth dialogue, and lots of quotes, ideas, or moments that feel allegorical as they’re happening. (This surface-level analogy gets amplified by a few spoiler-y things, too.) The performances can also have their volume turned all the way up quite often. Thewlis and Collette in particular clearly had green lights to lean into their characters’ weirdness as much as they pleased, and Plemons’ Jake fluctuates between feeling like an illusion and a newish-but-uninspiring boyfriend. I had more than a few flashbacks to parsing Waiting for Godot in high school English class: in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, eventually you realize what’s being grappled with in script was always meant to be more important than what’s happening in front of your eyes.
Kaufman has made his career on surrealist cinema, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things has just as many ideas and just as much disregard for the laws of nature as his previous works—it just doesn’t land everything as cleanly. At times, I found myself wondering if we were in the mind of someone battling with dementia: Jake, for instance, calls Lucy “Louisa” and “Lucia” in conversation and no one skips a beat; we also see people who appear at different ages within the same “night.” Or, maybe this farm is a manifestation of the idea that your entire life flashes before you right before death, as through Lucy we seem to see Jake’s existence stuck in fast forward. Supporting characters from Jake’s mom to the young woman making milkshakes at a Dairy Queen knock-off all seem to break the fourth wall to warn Lucy of some trouble ahead, the title could be interpreted in a more fatal light, and Lucy’s inner monologue homes in on the nature of existence a lot: “We’re stationary, time passes through us… leaving us, I don’t know, dead,” she says at one point. “It’s tragic how few people possess their souls before they die,” she ponders at another.
And if I’m Thinking of Ending Things ultimately wants to say something about relationships, that something definitely isn’t hopeful. Eternal Sunshine, Kaufman’s masterpiece, centers on the same topic and argues the journey of falling in love is worth traversing through even if the ultimate destination is a tragic ending more often that not. But more than a decade later, Kaufman has a much different tune to play. Lucy trudges forward with Jake in this increasingly down spiraling moment without Jake showcasing any redeeming qualities. He acts like a walking citation correcting Lucy with regularity, he fails to recognize her increasingly urgent pleas to get home, and he can’t be bothered to keep details of their relationship origins straight. If relationships are destined to be like this, Lucy’s struggle suggests don’t get in the car at all.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things will probably become a film that’s more fun to think through, read about, or discuss than it is to watch—which, again, feels a little counterintuitive to everything else Netflix has up to this point. Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail called it his favorite film of the year while simultaneously noting its, um, lack of plot on Twitter. Personally, I quickly went scrambling for a summary of the book that inspired this, Ian Reid’s 2016 debut novel of the same name. That maybe made what I saw “fit” into an idea a bit better; certainly some of Lucy’s quotes ring differently: “Most people are other people: their thoughts are someone else’s opinion, their lives are mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
All that assumes Kaufman wanted to remain loyal to the original story, which is not guaranteed. Even before we knew theaters wouldn’t be an option, this auteur intended to eschew a lot of the characteristics now associated with the streaming format. I’m Thinking of Ending Things would likely play better in an art house cinema with a cafe waiting for audiences right outside, but much like Lucy’s ultimate fate, we will never know.
Listing image by Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020