Review: Charlie Kaufman's 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' Strange, Contemplative

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 4, 2020

David Thewlis, Toni Collette, Jesse Plemons, and Jessie Buckley in 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things'
David Thewlis, Toni Collette, Jesse Plemons, and Jessie Buckley in 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things'  

Charlie Kaufman's films often examine intersections of memory, time, and romantic relationships. "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is a fascinating, strange, surreal, philosophical film. It's a contemplative, off-kilter, slipstream nightmare evoking melancholy and confinement by time, a relationship, and regrets. A bizarre film, it breaks into phantasmagoric ballet dances, animation, and musical numbers, including a heartbreaking rendition of "Lonely Room" from "Oklahoma."

Directed and written by Kaufman, the film adapts Iain Reid's 2016 novel. A woman (Jessie Buckley) travels with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to meet his parents, and things go awry. She contemplates breaking up with him. "I'm thinking of ending things," she repeats throughout the film via narration, like a mantra or incantation. It feels like a sinister harbinger.

We learn the woman's name is Lucy. Or is it? Jake sporadically calls her Lucy, Louisa, Lucia, and Ames. Strangely, she receives missed phone calls from "Lucy" and "Louisa." Jake seems amiable, but he's also controlling, with violent outbursts. His dialogue often interrupts her narration; his presence intrudes on her thoughts and life.

There's stellar acting by the entire cast, but Jessie Buckley is particularly fantastic as she navigates emotionally confounding terrain. The writing, direction, cinematography, and editing are all exceptional. The film's aspect ratio is the narrower 1.33:1, perhaps to reify feeling trapped or as a nod to cinema history, as this was the first aspect ratio used.

In the car, Lucy and Jake have cerebral conversations on time, art, and philosophy. Debating the film "A Woman Under the Influence," Lucy's diatribe is film critic Pauline Kael's review verbatim. Jake asks Lucy to recite a poem she wrote, but it's actually by poet Eva H.D. from "Lying Rotten Mouth." The uncredited quotes and allusions (stemming from books and art in Jake's parents' house) speak to artificiality, elucidating the tension between reality and fantasy — who we are, and who we yearn to be.

When Lucy meets Jake's idiosyncratic parents (Toni Colette, David Thewlis), she feels anxious, despite their warm welcome. She sees Jake's childhood photo, which, eerily, initially looks like herself. In various scenes, Lucy's appearance changes: Her hairstyle, jewelry, and striped sweater. It might appear a continuity error, but it should warn you to not trust what you see.

Lucy's career also continuously changes. At various times, she's a poet, quantum physicist, gerontologist, or painter. Her name and career vacillate; her identity hinges on the whim of Jake's idealized notion of women, reminiscent of the film "Ruby Sparks." Lucy feels compelled to validate Jake. In one scene, they debate whether "Baby It's Cold Outside" is a rape song "about coercion." The song parallels how Lucy repeatedly says she must leave, but Jake ignores her wishes. Society expects women to shift, bend, and accommodate others.

"I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is a meticulous film that's enigmatic, challenging, and haunting. It pushes you to question what's on-screen. Myriad layers exist, yet the film conveys the scaffolding people construct to counter regret and loneliness. It reverberates in your mind long after watching.