Charlie Kaufman is, to me, an honorary member of the horror genre.
In the retro days when you’d rent physical copies of movies rather than stream them, titles like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would more likely be placed in the comedy or drama sections of Blockbuster. At least, that’s where I discovered the latter in my early teens.
And yet I remember the surreal goofiness of Joel and Clementine’s determination to forget one another bordering on the Unsettling. And just like John Malkovich, there’s a tangible feeling of claustrophobia because of how literally the viewer is placed into the character’s heads. Our discomfort seems to be exactly where Kaufman finds his comfort—he’s successfully done it again with his 2020 adaption of Iain Reid’s debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Let’s start with the title. I think most of us have been in situations when it dawns on us that a significant moment in our lives has run its course, whether it’s a romantic relationship, platonic friendship, or even a job situation gone sour. That very first time the idea of moving on floats into your mind, especially when it’s not an easy decision, is unsettling. You can’t go back from that thought. It’s like noticing a dark spot on a white wall. It’s the first thing you land on every time you see it. You can feel that it’s there, even when you’re not looking.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things embodies this very state of unease through an orchestra of unpleasant emotions: anxiety, resentment, regret, and the indecision of whether to hold on or let go.
A college student (Jessie Buckley) joins her new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) on a snowy drive to his childhood home in the countryside to meet his parents. Despite the cheery exposition, the film wastes no time transforming the atmosphere from cute to cringey. We’re invited into the girlfriend’s stream of consciousness as she ponders dumping him, which Jake seems acutely suspicious of, as they engage in a twisting series of contradictory conversations and even a sudden melancholic poetry performance.
Once they arrive at Jake’s parents’ house, things only become more bizarre. Not only do the characters describe their backgrounds inconsistently, but their physical appearances begin to drastically shift as well. Toni Collette, who already set the highest bar for emotional acting in Hereditary, once again delivers in her startling portrayal of Jake’s mother.
In spite of its two-hour-and-fourteen-minute runtime, the film manages to hold this tension from the strangely smiley opening scene to the chilling closing shot. Don’t let its length intimidate you. Plenty of movies that surpass the 90-minute mark could benefit from an editor willing to stand up to the director, but as the film follows a character who refuses to move on, even when it becomes agonizing, Kaufman sneakily justifies its duration.
At the risk of sounding like a fangirl, I’ve seen the movie four times since it premiered on Netflix last September—the level of detail encourages a rewatch, even though it’s fairly easy to figure out what’s going on with the plot. Though, you’ll likely have new theories the more you ruminate on it.
It’s littered with teeny easter eggs and deep-cut references that one reviewer believes aren’t necessary to be familiar with to enjoy the plot. I agree. That being said, I rummaged through online dissections after my first viewing to fully grasp what each one was, and it made me like the movie more. Still, I suggest not doing any homework before your first watch.
Don’t forget the tire chains.