Oscar®-winning writer-director Charlie Kaufman is certainly a curious soul. His stories like to deal characters who are facing identity crises and how they might see themselves and their lives in their minds. When other filmmakers direct his screenplays, the movies, like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH; ADAPTATION; ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, are deliciously surreal and delightfully inventive. When he’s directing his own films though, as he did for SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and ANOMALISA, they’re downright strange. That’s not to say that the films he directs are bad. On the contrary! They’re just not for everyone’s taste. The same can be said for his latest effort behind the camera, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS. Some are going to love it while others are going to think it’s a bunch of psychoanalytical hooey.
A young woman (Jessie Buckley, DOLITTLE; JUDY; WILD ROSE; TV’s CHERNOBYL) – that’s how she’s listed in the closing credits though she’s identified during the film by many names including Lucy, Louisa, Lucia and Ames – travels to meet her boyfriend’s, Jake’s (Jesse Plemons, EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE; VICE; GAME NIGHT; AMERICAN MADE; THE PROGRAM; TV’s BREAKING BAD) parents for the first time. In her thoughts she says that she’s thinking of ending things and we assume that means her relationship with Jake, a guy who seems so different from her. At Jake’s parents’ home, located on a remote farm somewhere in Oklahoma, his mother (Toni Collette, TV’s UNBELIEVABLE; KNIVES OUT; HEREDITARY) and father (David Thewlis, WONDER WOMAN; ANOMALISA; THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING; the HARRY POTTER franchise), seem to age and get younger before Jake’s and the young woman’s eyes. Wasn’t the bandage over the father’s right eye when he first came downstairs? The young woman takes it all in stride but she’s changing too. Does she study quantum physics, poetry, gerontology or film criticism? Did she and Jake meet at a college trivia night or was she his waitress at a bar? Was she wearing those pearls when she came into the house? On their long, wintry drive home, Jake stops the car at his old high school and goes inside. The young woman eventually follows him but the only one she finds there is the school’s elderly janitor.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS is based on the 2016 debut novel of the same name by Canadian Iain Reid. While the essence of the story hasn’t changed, the film does have a few new elements, most notably being the repeated references to the musical, Oklahoma!. Kaufman even ends his version with Jake re-enacting the scene from Jud Fry’s smokehouse where he performs the song, “Lonely Room”. If it wasn’t obvious before this point, Jake sees himself as the play’s misunderstood antagonist, who sings about his loneliness and his longing for love. Like Jud, Jake is a man who is smart and talented but has never lived up to his potential. His mother certainly thinks he is capable and tells the young woman so in a curiously backhanded way. His father, though, is less supportive, which can be seen when he doesn’t even make eye contact with Jake when the young couple arrives at the farmhouse. The story cuts away from time to time to the janitor, as he cleans the school’s floors, catching the young girls’ eyes as they walk past him or when they’re rehearsing their school’s production of Oklahoma!. (Remember their faces because you’ll see them again!) At home, he watches Peabody’s Improbable History on TV; while on a lunch break, he watches a pseudo-’90s romcom directed by Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE; FORREST GUMP). Like Jake, the janitor is a lonely introvert who lives in his own fantasy world.
The movie is structured much like a stage play with lusciously long monologues that demand that you sit up and pay attention. The two Jess(i)es, Collette and Thewlis are up for the task and they all put in strong performances but they’re only half of the film’s brilliance. There are so many clues in the film about where the story is going that you’ll be hard-pressed to catch them all in one viewing. I certainly missed a lot the first time I watched it. While you can understand the story with one viewing, a second viewing will definitely add to its appreciation.
Okay, I’m going to say it now. I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS is one of my favourite films so far this year!
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS is available now on Netflix. It’s not for everyone but if you are going to watch it, I would suggest you either watch OKLAHOMA! (the 1999 version is the one you need to watch for “Lonely Room”, although I think the 1956 version is the better production) or read the Wikipedia plot synopsis of the play first. This movie will make a whole lot more sense if you do.
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