Charlie Kaufman’s involvement with a film is a sure sign of strangeness ahead. His past projects include Being John Malkovich, about a portal that allows anyone who goes through it to enter the titular actor’s mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, about a couple who decide to undergo a treatment to erase their memories of each other. His latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, adapted from the novel of the same name by Iain Reid, immediately dives into that same surreal territory, as a couple driving down a snowy road are joined by a third passenger: intrusive thoughts.
A young woman (Jessie Buckley) sits in the passenger seat of a car as her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) drives them both to his parents’ house for dinner. They’ve been dating for seven weeks, just long enough for her to think that it might be time to break up. As her thoughts are communicated to the audience via voiceover, however, Jake breaks in. Did she say something?
The whole drive is an uncomfortable conversation bouncing between two people and three voices. Each time the young woman’s voiceover resumes, Jake seems to be able to hear what she’s thinking, and he interrupts her every time her thoughts get too heavy. When they arrive at his parents’ farmhouse, the trip gets even weirder. The family dog intermittently disappears and never stops shaking itself; Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis) are young one moment and old the next; some of Jake’s baby pictures seem to be of his girlfriend instead.
All the strange elements, including the way the young woman’s name seems to constantly change (Lucy? Louisa? Lucia?), point to Kaufman’s larger intentions with the work. This isn’t a relationship drama so much as it is the relationship drama. The young woman — let’s call her Lucy — and Jake can’t possibly stand in for every heterosexual couple out there, but the shifting details around them evoke both the small problems that often plague relationships, and the way memories and ideals can change.
That constant, subtle sense of change and motion puts a tremendous burden on Buckley and Plemons’ shoulders. Even as Lucy’s job and interests continue to change (she’s a waitress, then a painter, then a student), she has to remain one character, rather than a myriad. And Plemons, while playing arguably the most solid character in the movie, has to convincingly capture seemingly contradictory traits (a habit of mansplaining vs. a genuine interest in Lucy’s work, for instance) as Lucy vacillates between affection for him, and revulsion.
On the other hand, Collette and Thewlis play to the rafters, because the transformations they go through are more obvious. Collette’s performance is almost frantic, and at times, she seems to be stuck repeating words or syllables like a broken record. Thewlis, meanwhile, oozes through the film, sometimes sharp, sometimes soft. There’s another presence in the film, too, a melancholy janitor (Guy Boyd) at the local high school, though his connection to the main characters isn’t immediately clear.
It’s tempting to get lost in parsing out which elements of the film are real, and what’s just projection. But Kaufman’s script and Buckley’s performance almost render the question irrelevant. I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t a puzzlebox, it’s about capturing a feeling. Even as Lucy contemplates breaking up with Jake, she wonders if there’s any point to it. In a later monologue, she talks through the vicious cycle of wanting your partner to see you as intelligent, and having a smart partner in order to be seen as smart by your peers. The unsteady ground Lucy and Jake are standing on is Kaufman’s window into exploring the tics present in many relationships, and at the root of many insecurities. He uses the shifting elements to dig into the unhappiness and complexity underneath something that’s supposed to be idyllic.
The musical Oklahoma! serves as a way of driving the point home. A song from the musical plays on the radio as Lucy and Jake drive, and excerpts continue to crop up. The play has had something of a cultural moment recently, appearing in HBO’s Watchmen and undergoing a hit revival that mined its darker undercurrent. Oklahoma! is popularly known as a cheery classic, but the actual show is full of more sex, violence, and overall complexity than the squeaky-clean vibe of “Oh, what a beautiful morning!” suggests. Similarly, relationships more complicated than the question of whether love is mutual, with the dichotomy Lucy and Jake are operating on becoming more complex than just “good” or “bad.”
The lack of clear answers and structure can be frustrating, but the strange way the story is told enhances just how real the exchanges between characters feel. The frustration that Lucy feels with Jake, that Jake feels with his mother, that his parents feel for each other, are all uncomfortably tangible, especially as tensions rise. The film’s 134-minute runtime is a long time to sit with that feeling, but Kaufman’s big divergence from the novel he’s adapting is in lending its ending a more buoyant note. The maze Kaufman is leading us through is a mystery, as he never pulls back far enough to show us the whole thing. But as itchy and claustrophobic as the paths are, they ultimately lead to a sense of hope.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is streaming on Netflix now.