Since breezing through Iain Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things last spring, I’ve lived with the question: What does Charlie Kaufman want to do with this story? On the one hand, the book wades in the sort of probingly psychological waters familiar to the cinema of Kaufman. On the other (and dominant) hand, it indulges the sort of tropes that Kaufman has lain to waste in past cinematic endeavors. Some explicitly, as seen notably in his 2002 film Adaptation. Granted, it’s that very piece of Kaufman’s oeuvre that pointed to the inevitability that the filmmaker’s take on I’m Thinking of Ending Things was bound to explore concepts well beyond, and maybe not even on the horizon of, the source’s margins.
To be sure, there’s more of Reid’s novel binding the meat and spirit of Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things than there was Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief in Adaptation. But Kaufman uses Reid’s main conceit—that of a young woman battling crescendoing existential dread during a visit-gone-awry to her newish boyfriend’s family home—as a launchpad, hauling bits and pieces of the story out into the stratosphere where he’s most at home.
In the filmmaker’s hands, I’m Thinking of Ending Things challenges its own reality, starting with pinpricks and building to blows to the head—miraculously both in harmony with the book’s driving question of, “What’s really going on here?” and at odds with its suggestion that such a question can or should be answered simply. Under direction of Kaufman, the quaint psychological thriller tenders its lens on identity at large: what informs it, what confounds it, its inextricability from gender, pop culture, the past…
The centerpiece of this exploration is the rapidly warping relationship between the tale’s all-but-nameless narrator (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). But rest assured, Kaufman isn’t satisfied to let his film’s inceptive set piece—the pair trading thoughts during a car ride down a long snowy highway—shoulder all the weight, resorting along the way to the shifting of gears, tones, realities, even mediums. Delightfully mad with power over both this project and its world, Kaufman plays fast and loose with time and space, and even manages a playfully vicious send-up of Hollywood cinema.
The wild ambition of Kaufman’s venture leaves me nervously uncertain of the answer to the question that lived in my head for the year between my reading of I’m Thinking of Ending Things and my viewing of the film. What exactly did he want to do with this story? And furthermore, did he do it?
For certain, I don’t know how to emancipate Kaufman’s version of the tale from the book that it subverts and occasionally skewers. Beyond this, it feels impossible even to digest I’m Thinking of Ending Things without inviting to mind the past works of Kaufman. Not only Adaptation, but his experiments with identity, gender, and experienced reality as seen from Being John Malkovich to Synecdoche, New York to his recent novel Antkind. Given that every title named is some manifestation of a story about the fact Charlie Kaufman himself writing a story, it feels particularly appropriate, if not part of the package.
Thankfully, it’s not the whole package, as the most twisty and bizarre of Kaufman’s expeditions are too founded in humanity. The peril ensnaring the insides of our lead, this perhaps the book’s most resounding contribution, is a motivating force from scene to scene. The tenderness with which Toni Collette and David Thewlis play Jake’s doting and decaying parents is touching. Even as it drifts ever further from its established recognizable form, tampering in horror, parody, animation, and song and dance, the film sticks close to the heart. All this is to say: whatever it is that Charlie Kaufman does, he’s doing it here.
Featured Image: Netflix
Mica Arbeiter is the Features Editor of Nerdist. Find them on Twitter @micarbeiter.