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The mind is a prison, at least according to films written by Charlie Kaufman. In Being John Malkovich, the hapless adult protagonist ends the film stuck in a child’s subconscious. In Adaptation, Kaufman writes himself into the screenplay, and is so full of self-loathing that he creates a fictional, more charming twin. These films are ostensibly comedies, and yet these heady ideas have a dark edge to them. It was only a matter of time before Kaufman would make something frightening, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is indeed a disturbing film about the limits of self. Kaufman embraces more genre tropes than his usual work, although the frequent discursions can test our patience.
Kaufman uses rhythm and repetition to create a sense of unease. The long opening stretch involves Jake (Jesse Plemons) driving his unnamed girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) in the snow, and the sound of the windshield wipers start to create tension. They are on their way to visit Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), who are eager to meet their son’s girlfriend for the first time. A blizzard descends on the remote farmhouse where Jake’s parents live, and amid awkward pleasantries, his girlfriend worries they cannot beat the storm on the drive home. But then all the characters enter a nightmarish purgatory state, one where all sense of time is lost and there is no hope for escape.
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At first, the horror is like the world’s most uncomfortable comedy of manners. Jake’s mother and father attempt to be welcoming, but they speak and move like they’re slightly unhinged. If Jake was confident and charming on the drive to the house, he reverts to a childlike state once he gets there. There is no real narrative logic to how this plays, except what we see is a literal version of how the characters imagine themselves. Kaufman correctly realizes that our warped sense of self and our loved ones can be scary enough, so there is no need for any monsters or ghosts.
Ending Things has the shaggy, drab quality that is familiar to Kaufman’s other films. This one is closest to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, both in terms of dream logic and the muted winter tones (fans of Eternal Sunshine will recognize a direct homage in a repeated shot). But what keeps the drama lively, even a protracted scene where the girlfriend recites poetry, is the specificity of the dialogue. These characters are smart, neurotic, and well-versed in a wide variety of topics. They debate philosophy, physics, and art, even movies. There is a scene, for example, where Jake and his girlfriend argue over the merits of the John Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence. The more you know about the topics discussed, the more you will understand what is really happening, and it is to Kaufman’s credit that he expects us to keep up.
The trouble is that Kaufman toes the line between unease and outright annoyance. He takes the source material, a novel by Iain Reid, and inserts his own unpleasant particularities. A little bit of silence would go a long way, but soon there are multiple stretches where seemingly nothing happens. Most psychological horror has the good sense to keep things moving, eking out information so we are curious about what happens next, except Kaufman would rather drag things out. This creates ennui in the characters, the girlfriend in particular, and that transfers to the viewer. All the characters have a strange mix of charm and exaggeration, so at least their inability to communicate is a showcase for tightly-crafted performances.
There is a shift in I’m Thinking of Ending Things where our sense of the characters profoundly changes. While it is not as pronounced as in the source material, Kaufman offers enough clues to grasp what Jake and his girlfriend mean to each other. There is poignancy to the final stretches where our point of view shifts, but you may not care about the specifics of who occupies what mental prison. Charlie Kaufman is unlike any other filmmaker, and he has created yet another film that is difficult to pin down and wrap your head around. It will certainly leave a long-lasting impression, albeit not in a way that everyone will appreciate.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is streaming Friday on Netflix.