Charlie Kaufman takes us on another trip into the recesses of his mind in surrealistic Netflix drama I’m Thinking About Ending Things – here’s our review.
Just last year, (although granted, that does seem like a lifetime ago,) there was a huge furore about whether streaming-based movies like Roma should be eligible for major awards such as the Oscars. You may remember that Selma director Ava DuVernay took on the might of Steven Spielberg and his Netflix-denouncing. Her argument was simple: as an under-represented filmmaker seeking to tell stories, in spite of her impressive filmography, only one company had ever guaranteed her a wide international release for any of her movies and it wasn’t one of the traditional studios… it was Netflix.
Of course, DuVernay was speaking about the opportunities Netflix offers filmmakers who are less represented in cinema, not so much the straight, white, male variety such as Charlie Kaufman, writer and director of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Yet somehow, the point still holds true. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is in some ways Kaufman’s most experimental film yet, certainly his most narratively dissonant, and that’s saying something when you consider he’s written films as radically strange as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich.
And that, despite its doubters, is the real beauty of Netflix. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a creatively intrepid fever-dream stewed straight from the oddball imagination of Kaufman (although credit must also go to Iain Reid who wrote the book upon which the film is based) and yet it will beam directly into 190 countries. Depending on the makeup of your particular Netflix algorithm, it may be sitting proudly on your homepage. It’s certainly emblazoned on mine. In the modern era of cinema, how else would a film so visually, structurally and aurally suffused with arthouse experimentalism, be so visible to a mass audience?
Ostensibly a film about the breakdown of a relationship, the movie on the surface at least adopts a simple narrative outline: Jessie Buckley’s Louisa is travelling with her boyfriend of several weeks, Jake, played by Jesse Plemons, to meet his parents. Yet paradoxically, even as she takes this step in formalising their relationship, she idly considers the inevitability that she will soon break up with him.
Contradictions such as these sit at the heart of I’m Thinking of Ending Things. As the narrative unfurls and the couple arrive at Jake’s parents, events become increasingly unstable and Louisa becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator. Time and space fold inwards and strangeness pervades the story, even as Kaufman’s trademark sense of desperately banal inertia takes root, slowly spinning characters towards uncertain trajectories.
Buckley and Plemons are terrific, two actors with a raft of blue-collar roles behind them helping to ground the film’s more surrealist elements. Toni Collette and David Thewlis are also great as Jake’s parents, with Thewlis in particular clearly having all kinds of fun. How much of this is featured in the original source material I’m not sure, but Kaufman also uses popular culture in some interesting ways. Thus, there’s a film-within-a-film ‘directed’ by a filmmaker of great repute eventually seeping into the wider story, and some wonderfully-rendered scenes from the musical Oklahoma! being used (in a similar fashion to its appearance in 2019’s TV miniseries Watchmen) to underscore the gulf between appearance and reality in the film.
It’s difficult to discuss the film further without seeking to untangle the meaning secreted beneath its layers of surrealism. It felt too long, indulgent perhaps, but ultimately at least, I’m Thinking of Ending Things felt to this reviewer at least, like it had something important to say about the nature of time. Unlike Tenet, another mind-bending picture about the nature of time which, in my opinion, struggled to say something cohesive about the the way in which we deal with the past, present and future (or perhaps the way it deals with us).
Like Tenet, this film left me also puzzled somewhat on a narrative level, coming back to me for hours beyond the viewing as I tried to make sense of its surreal events, but unlike Nolan’s epic blockbuster, a clear sense of the director’s thoughts on time, how nostalgia can deceive us, how we can trap people from our past in amber, falsely preserving them in our memories, on the way in which we use time to idealise and shift our perceptions. In that sense, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a profoundly interesting watch, with a desperately human heart underneath its many layers of surrealistic trappings.
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