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Down a dark path with Charlie Kaufman

Arts Review2020-9-4By: Marc Glassman

Down a dark path with Charlie Kaufman
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a philosophical thriller
By Marc Glassman

I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman, director and writer
Based on a novel by Iain Reid

Starring: Jesse Plemons (Jake), Jessie Buckley (Cindy), Toni Collette (Suzy), David Thewlis (Dean), Guy Boyd (Janitor)

Produced for and available on Netflix.

Ever since he burst into fame with the script for the baffling and brilliant Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman has more than courted controversy; in fact, he seems to be enthralled by it. Taking the opportunity to adapt Canadian novelist Iain Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman has kept what worked in the original while changing an unsuccessful ending into a truly puzzling one. For the man who wrote Adaptation, it’s fascinating to see how he renegotiates Reid’s interior narration, making it even more philosophical, while retaining the novel’s core strengths: most of the plot and characters—until its final twists and turns. A fine book has become an even finer film, thanks to one of the great scriptwriters of our time.

The plot of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is strangely straight forward. A youngish couple who recently met, are going for the first test of their relationship: a dinner at Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) family home. Cindy (Jessie Buckley) is somewhat frightened of meeting Jake’s parents and begins to question the entire affair. She’s the one who is “thinking of ending things” and whose interior monologue we hear through the film (and the novel). The two drive for quite a while to Jake’s parent’s farm during stormy conditions as Cindy grows more apprehensive. Her fears prove correct as Jake’s parents prove to be socially awkward and their house, quite disturbing. After a very odd dinner, they depart for home during a fierce snow storm. On the way back, they stop for of all things, an ice cream shake, and then head to Jake’s old high school, which he’s decided is the right place to discard their cups in a garbage. (Definitely a Canadian idea!) When they end up in the high school as the storm rages, the couple meet the only person there, the janitor, and the story moves to its unsettling conclusion.

Both Reid and Kaufman are obsessed with questions of identity and that’s the puzzler for both the film and the book. Who is saying what to whom and why? A hint for filmgoers is in the casting of Jesse (Plemons) and Jessie (Buckley) as the two leads. The two are physicists—just like the Curies—and they both have painted landscapes, which are intensely personal  to them while appearing to be only scenes of the outdoors to everyone else. They’re both readers and cinephiles who engage in a tough discussion about John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and how Gena Rowlands’ role relates to feminism while driving in the car. The duo are in a special intellectual space where Guy Debord and other cultural theorists are just fodder for a chat. When one Jessie makes a point, the other Jesse thinks about it and simply agrees.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a wonderfully stylish piece. Kaufman has placed his aesthetics about halfway between Hitchcock and Lynch. Like them, he can make the ordinary—a family meal, a drive in a car, a trip to a basement—into something quite unsettling. Where he strays more into Lynchian territory in this film is in  the final sequences when things take on a phantasmagoric quality. Kaufman’s direction of his actors is impeccable as was his casting. The always persuasive Toni Collette is superb as Jake’s neurotic mother and David Thewlis more than matches her as the disconnected—perhaps Alzheimer’s afflicted—husband and father. Jesse Plemons resembles Philip Seymour Hoffman—he played his son in The Master—which may account for his authority as Jake while the film is held together by the outrageously talented Jessie Buckley, who is the heartbeat of the film until the ending.

Not everyone will agree with my totally positive review of a film that defies expectations. I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t exactly a horror film or a thriller. Really, it’s an art film, full of contradictions and digressions, that has to be experienced to be admired. In this age of instant gratification, Kaufman’s film isn’t for everyone. But I bet that a huge number of Netflix viewers will see this film and enjoy it. There’s no doubt that it’s a true, if problematic, work of art, which deserves praise and a discerning audience.

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean

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