I’m Thinking of Ending Things: Charlie Kaufman’s new nightmare surpasses all expectations

The female narrator played by Jessie Buckley represents a departure for the director, but it's a welcome one, as this film's complex ideas and nerve-shredding horror prove scarily effective.

2 September 2020

By Trevor Johnston

Jessie Buckley as Lucy in I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Sight and Sound

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is on Netflix.

Not for the first time, the act of adaptation has opened up a new avenue in the Charlie Kaufman filmography. Back in 2002, his script for Adaptation proved that A-list Hollywood casting and a famed New Yorker article could combine to deliver not the expected turgid Oscar-bait but an unprecedented self-reflexive diversion, uproariously witty and pointedly melancholic. Now he’s tackled Iain Reid’s admired 2016 novel of addled psychology, and created something that not only is chillingly true to the book, but engages with genre in a way that’s new in Kaufman’s directorial output – expanding beyond the source material to fascinating effect, while also working through the familiar Kaufman spectrum of existential anxieties.

For one thing, it’s refreshing to hear a female narrator, as we listen in on the thoughts of Jessie Buckley’s Lucy, who – as the film’s title suggests – is thinking of ending her relationship with boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). But as they head off on a wintry visit to his parents’ farm, she is keeping her own counsel. Kaufman’s two previous outings as director – Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015) – unloaded the relentless self-pity of middle-aged men, and notwithstanding story settings of frequently dazzlingly creativity, their overall impact was limited by a nagging sense that these guys should just get over themselves and spare us the self-indulgence. Here though, through Buckley’s perceptions, we explore a different take on the world, as the realisation preys on her that she’d be better off on her own.

Meanwhile, the film’s murky colour scheme and shadowy cinematography, plus the threatening presence of an abusive crank caller, and initially inexplicable inserts of a wheezy old school janitor going about his lonely day, create a palpable air of thriller-inflected foreboding. What’s striking is how effectively Kaufman stages the escalating unease, as the film moves through a deeply unsettling family dinner towards a stomach-knotting predatory encounter, eventually exploding into genuine mindfuck territory.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

The film sits within the same horror framework as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (though with very different thematic concerns), and Buckley’s unfolding ordeal reflects on a wider genre arena too, recalling at times David Lynch’s ability to locate a sinister undertow in seemingly benign retro Americana, and terminating in a location that, like Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, is both a geographical labyrinth and philosophical conundrum. Not what we’d expect from a Charlie Kaufman film, and all the better for it, the film’s myriad levels of thematic interest and enquiry complementing rather than hindering its sedulously nerve-shredding effectiveness.

Reid’s novel, for the most part a single interior monologue, uses essentially literary means to reach a place of haunting bleakness; Kaufman achieves a similar effect by rethinking it in filmic terms. Where the novelist can cajole us into questioning his narrator’s reliability or even identity, Kaufman intensifies the uncertainty by having the narrative show signs of disintegration. He suggests that the guiding consciousness behind what we’re seeing has been assailed by pop-culture memories, which (the dialogue implies) act like a virus, infecting and breaking down a sense of self.

Buckley’s mesmerising performance encompasses the recitation of a gnarly post-modern poem by the Canadian writer Eva H.D., as well as a performance of a Pauline Kael film review (!); and elsewhere the film finds room for animated inserts, a dream ballet and (yes) songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! The film’s wilder forays are always rooted in the nuanced representation of an unravelling mind, but this is definitely not one for those who like cut-and-dried narrative certainty. Ultimately, it’s hard even to be precise about how many of these characters actually ‘exist’ in the familiar real-world sense.

Apart from the superb performances, with Buckley’s tour de force off-set by wonderfully genre-savvy turns from David Thewlis and Toni Collette as the creepy parents, and Plemons rooting matters as the stolid yet evidently troubled boyfriend, some might find the overall experience confounding or infuriating. In which case, a second viewing is recommended, since you can then pick out how Kaufman’s brilliantly layered dialogue offers helpful points of entry to the film’s unusual stylistic intentions.

For example, Buckley’s character’s claims about landscape paintings highlight her pursuit of ‘interiority’, the communication of her inner feelings through an artwork using non-conventional representational modes to evoke strong feelings in the spectator. Which is exactly how the movie goes too: thoughtful, scary, Kaufmanesque, remarkable. 

Further reading

“I don’t know how anyone could feel secure in the world as it is right now”: an interview with Charlie Kaufman

This summer brings two very different offerings from Charlie Kaufman: his sprawling debut novel Antkind and his claustrophobic new feature I’m Thinking of Ending Things – a pair of fascinating ventures into the esoteric, singular imagination of a true American original.

By Jonathan Romney

“I don’t know how anyone could feel secure in the world as it is right now”: an interview with Charlie Kaufman

Other things to explore