With his latest, endlessly rewatchable effort, the Eternal Sunshine scribe has designed a film perfectly suited to the Netflix format
When was the last time you told someone, “Things are good, thank you!” or “I’m sure things will be fine”? As an affirmation, a possibility, or a question, what do you mean when you place everything on the outcome of “things”? What are these things, exactly? People, places, feelings, or something more dangerous altogether? The young woman in Charlie Kaufman’s sensational new film is “thinking of ending things.” Hear it once and it makes sense. But let it sit with you, sink into your pores, and a million meanings explode before your eyes.
Jessie Buckley plays a young woman – Lucy, Louisa, you’ll soon forget – on her way to meet the parents of her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons, at once stony and compelling), for the first time. She hasn’t even got in the car when she confesses to the viewer what she’s thinking – but then she carries on. It makes sense: Jake is nice, they have an intense connection, they’ve both watched too many movies. But really, what are six, seven weeks? Certainly not long enough to know about these things she’s thinking of ending.
Words matter, as they always do in Kaufman’s films. Back behind the camera, directing his own adaptation of Iain Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name, the filmmaker relishes cerebral dialogue, sometimes between characters, often just with us. Buckley performs monologues with beguiling conviction, as if directly drawn from the viewer’s mind, rather than the product of anything a stranger could have imagined. And all this is just in the car ride over.
The film lurches to life once we arrive at Jake’s parents’ house, a farm in the middle of nowhere. Toni Collette settles back into her haywire theatricality from Hereditary as a frighteningly caring mother. David Thewlis, uncomfortably comedic, plays her husband. Time isn’t running properly – no one will say anything about it, because surely we’re just imagining that? But people answer too quickly, and make noise for too long. Waving, shaking, laughing, smiling: things that should go unnoticed suddenly take over.
To try and pin down the film’s plot twists and meanings feels redundant for two reasons. Revealing the intricacies of Kaufman’s prickly, ominous and often heartbreaking script would ruin the singular experience of discovering this story for the first time. It's a devastating game of spot-the-difference in motion, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it magic trick that dances around your nervous system for two hours and 14 minutes. But crucially, spending too much time detailing the narrative is futile because it feels impossible. Your mileage may vary, but this is not simple viewing. Much of the film’s enjoyment hinges on the breathtaking but individual moments each viewer chooses to latch onto, rather than the cumulative processing of one straightforward, linear story as a whole.
Suffice to say, this is so much more than a family dinner. She’s thinking of ending things, often, but from the first time she tells us to the last moments we see her, we, too, have started and experienced a lifetime of “things.” The initial confession, seemingly straightforward, is now spiralling.
Buckley masters this slippery sense of existence, providing an astonishing tether to reality – however you define it – as the oddities of Kaufman’s mind bloom. You see it as she’s looking into the back of the viewer’s skull while reciting a poem, smiling through terror as she desperately tries to be a good girlfriend, or when she’s reeling off Pauline Kael’s review of John Cassavetes’ Woman Under the Influence, pontificating about how the film's main character “fragments before your eyes.”
This idea of dissolution is crucial – it’s what fuelled the staggering power of Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, and it’s what makes I’m Thinking of Ending Things one of Kaufman’s most impressive, troubling and moving films to date. Names, jobs, places, people. Nothing lasts forever.
It is that rare film that demands to be rewatched immediately, for a reason that seems brand new – uncannily perfect for a Netflix film. Don’t be fooled by the ease of an auto-play, either: this will get deep under your skin. It is cryptic, often confusing, yet the puzzle somehow convinces you, from the second you touch it, that it’s a part of you that you need to retrieve rather than something foreign to decipher. And thank goodness it’s never been easier to try and try again.
The thing is, if you have only known a person for six, seven weeks, how much do you really remember of the details? Was his shirt navy on that day? Was I actually wearing gold earrings? And which “things” that you say are fine, under control, or that need to end, do you think this other person really knows about? I’m Thinking of Ending Things thrusts you back into your own memories and forces you to swim in their past, present, and future. Forget questions and answers – what matters most are all the “things” that live and die in-between them.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix on September 4.Where to watch