Charlie Kaufman is an acquired taste. Perhaps the writer’s most accessible contribution to popular culture is his screenplay for Being John Malkovich. Cult filmmaker Spike Jonze directed that oddity, a brilliant, bizarre 1999 meta-comedy that featured a sad John Cusack selling entrance into a semi-fictionalised version of Malkovich’s head. When Kaufman’s new film was announced, nobody expected a happy-go-lucky comedy. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is, as you might expect, a stranger fish altogether.
In Kaufman’s latest feature, which he directs and adapts from Ian Reid’s acclaimed novel, we hear the anxious, downbeat thoughts of a student quantum physicist. Jessie Buckley’s Young Woman, as she is credited – is embarking on a snowy car trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons). They’re visiting his parents, despite the pair only having been together for a matter of weeks (maybe six, though our heroine is unsure). The Young Woman’s interior monologue returns to the title’s mantra repeatedly while she wrestles with her thoughts and Jake tries to make stilted conversation about musicals and William Wordsworth poetry. It’s excruciating, albeit brilliantly observed and darkly funny. We wonder if Jake can hear her and why she hasn’t already given him the elbow, given their obvious lack of chemistry.
When the pair arrive at Jake’s parents’ house, things get even weirder. Jake’s father Dean (David Thewlis) speaks and moves in ways seemingly designed to make everyone feel ill-at-ease, while mother Suzie (Toni Collette) is over-friendly and borderline maniacal. After a disconcerting dinner, Buckley’s Woman explores the family home, finding old books and paintings that seem to suggest she’s been tricked. She also meets aged and younger doubles of Suzie and Dean and seems to be losing the plot a bit. It’s hard to tell because much of the plot is nonsensical. Kaufman’s earlier works – like stop-motion drama Anomalisa and superb theatre-deconstruction Synecdoche, New York – are undeniably strange, but this takes things further. How much viewers can stomach will depend on their tolerance of the characters’ eccentricities.
That aside, there’s much to recommend. Collette and Thewlis are enjoyably quirky, often funny ha-ha and funny run-away within the same scene. Plemons’ unremarkable Jake proves quite sinister in the end – boring with menace. Buckley, at the centre of things, brings her best yet again. Having portrayed a damaged young woman in Beast and a fierce, energetic country singer in Wild Rose, here she offers something completely different – a worried, intelligent woman who realises she should have stayed at home. Kaufman’s skewed slant on reality may frame the movie, but it’s Buckley’s terrific talent that makes it worth watching.
- Director: Charlie Kaufman
- Starring: Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, Jesse Plemons
- Release date: September 4 (Netflix)