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I'm Thinking of Ending Things review: An existential thriller unlike any you've seen

Charlie Kaufman's newest movie, coming to Netflix on Sept. 4, will leave you with more questions than answers -- and that's the way it should be. Warning: Minor plot reveals ahead.

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Jessie Buckley stars as the young woman in Netflix's I'm Thinking of Ending Things.
Netflix

Warning: Minor plot reveals ahead.

Charlie Kaufman's strange new psychological thriller I'm Thinking of Ending Things, based on the book of the same name by Iain Reid, is made for film critics, or at least for people who casually read Pauline Kael, which I'm guessing you don't. I mean, I don't. I don't know that anyone reads Pauline Kael, one of the most influential American film critics ever, casually. Certainly not in 2020.

But Jake, played by Jesse Plemons, seems to. Or at least a collection of Kael's works sits on prominent display in Jake's childhood room, beside the ashes of the dog his girlfriend Lucy (Jessie Buckley) was just petting downstairs. Or was the young woman's name Lucia? As characters keep repeating, "It's treacherous out here."

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story of Ending Things, which streams Friday on Netflix, is fairly straightforward: Jake is driving to his family's farmhouse with his girlfriend of six weeks (Buckley is credited only as "the young woman"). She meets the parents, played by two ever-excellent actors, Toni Collette and David Thewlis. Jake and his girlfriend leave, amid a blizzard, and wind up at a high school in the middle of the night.

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David Thewlis and Toni Collette are unsettling as Jake's parents.

Netflix

But nothing else is straightforward about this movie. The young woman's identity is constantly in flux -- one moment she's a quantum physicist ("I'm not a metaphorical type gal"), the next she's a poet, a painter, a gerontologist. Jake makes a comment about the John Cassavetes classic A Woman Under the Influence, and his girlfriend is instantly smoking a cigarette, spouting verbatim Kael's review of the movie: "Mabel tries to slit her wrists, and Nick puts a Band-Aid on the cut: the idiot symbolism may make you hoot, but this two-hour-and-thirty-five minute film will leave you too groggy to do more than moan."

What materializes over the course of this film, which also clocks in at over two hours, is a relationship in which Jake is making and remaking his girlfriend according to his own idealized visions. Yet in a movie where Jake is the hinge around which everything and everyone pivots, why are we more attached to the young woman he's dating, at least to start?

This is a movie by the writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He wrote and directed Synechdoche, New York, which critic Roger Ebert called the best movie of the '00s, and later Anomalisa, a stop-motion animated film.

Kaufman is one of the best screenwriters of the 21st century, and his movies are weird -- like, "John Cusack selling tickets for people to ride around in John Malkovich's head" weird, or "a puppet realizing he's a puppet while looking in the mirror" weird. The line between fiction and reality blurs once again in I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Characters' eyes catch the camera for a little too long to be accidental, people leave one room and enter another a decade older or younger.

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The set design and photography are stunning.

Netflix

The performances are uniformly superb. Jessie Buckley is an exciting up-and-coming Irish actor you may recognize from HBO's Chernobyl, while Jesse Plemons can't seem to pick a bad project lately. The photography, by Łukasz Żal (Ida, Loving Vincent), feels starkly different from that of Kaufman's previous films, which often tended toward handheld, sometimes even home-video-styled. This movie is more visually manicured, with beautifully framed stationary shots, and a camera that moves only with great intention.

In line with Kaufman's more recent films, Ending Things feels extremely heady, even writerly. The title and credits appear in Courier font, as though ripped from the script itself. David Foster Wallace, Guy Debord, William Wordsworth, Anna Kavan and even the DSM mental health manual get explicit callouts and often direct quotes, along with Kael. Characters quibble over words and their meanings: wow, sign, sissy, several. And here, in the inescapable self-consciousness of Kaufman, we find Jake once more.

Jake is fully understandable only through the young woman he's dragging around all night. Jake's mother (played fearfully and wonderfully by Collette) tells the young woman about her son's need for control. The obvious reading might focus on Jake's sexism or misogyny -- which we catch glimpses of with his temptation to pin his dysfunctions on his mother, or his willingness to pressure the young woman into uncomfortably vulnerable situations. It'd be a shame if sexism were the focal point, though. In Kael's review of A Woman Under the Influence, she knocks director Cassavetes for attending only to the oppressed woman: "When Nick yells, the picture's only concern is the effect on Mabel," rather than for all the characters, wounded and wounding alike. 

But Kaufman sidesteps this pothole. Since Jake and the young woman are so tightly linked -- "You, me, ideas. We're all one thing," an old-timey animated pig tells a naked janitor late in the film -- their moments of change, of course-correction, are just as character-defining as their transgressions. Jake is tempted to blame his mother for his problems, but the young woman reminds him of the "misogynistic claptrap Freudian bullshit" fueling such an impulse. And Jake responds to Kael's, I mean the young woman's, assessment of A Woman Under the Influence with an inarticulate yet earnest defense of Cassavetes' willingness to empathize with the struggles of society's outcasts.

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Stopping for ice cream during a blizzard is one of the less bizarre moments of the movie.

Netflix

Jake, or the woman, or Kaufman, or the viewer -- we're all the same, the movie tells us, all fallible. We're capable of cruelty and empathy. We're trying to find meaning, trying to live. "Even fake crappy movie ideas want to live," the young woman says early in the film. "Like, they grow in your brain, replacing real ideas. That's what makes them dangerous."

And so the movie, appropriately, abandons the source novel's tidy finality in favor of ending with a movie idea -- literally a surreal re-creation of a scene from a very different sort of movie that many viewers will instantly recognize.

It's a far more ambiguous approach than the book's, and the story benefits from it. Instead of a physical, obvious "ending things," Kaufman's conclusion feels characteristically complex: both understated and devastating precisely because of its quiet nature. Kaufman's adaptation dwells less on a gimmick or twist and more on the characters' clumsy loves, their loneliness, their performance of irreducible interiority and their urgent, human desire for meaning and beauty.

None of it is real, per se. But, Kaufman seems to say, it's as real as anything.