Premise: Despite second thoughts about their relationship, a young woman (Jessie Buckley) takes a road trip with her new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to his family farm. Trapped at the farm during a snowstorm with Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis), the young woman begins to question the nature of everything she knew or understood about her boyfriend, herself, and the world.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an ambitious feat of surreal relationship deconstruction from writer/director Charlie Kaufman. Adapted from Iain Reid’s novel, the film introduces us to a Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) and Jake (Jesse Plemons), her boyfriend of a month (or 6 weeks, maybe 7). As the new couple embarks on their first trip in the dead of winter, the Young Woman contemplates the doubts she has about the relationship. However, things quickly turn strange in unexpected and inexplicable ways as the very fabric of the Young Woman’s reality soon begins to unravel.
What Kaufman achieves with I’m Thinking of Ending Things is much deeper than simply dissecting a woman’s concerns about the longevity of a single relationship. The film uses this inner monologue from the Young Woman merely as a jumping off point. Before our eyes, the very nature of the relationship (and the participants therein) shift and change to fit into different roles. Through this narrative effect, the film creates an abstract tapestry of human relationships that runs the gamut from the darkest corners of romantic encounters to the most idealistic and fantastical movielike romances. The result is a relentless descent into multiple facets of human relationships that proves to be gripping from the word go and does not let up.
There’s a strong sense of controlled chaos throughout I’m Thinking of Ending Things. As the shifts come and the encounters grow ever more bizarre, the film embraces its own flimsy grasp on reality. While the Young Woman seems conscious of the bizarre alterations in her reality, the film never puts her on the path of self-identity and actualization. Instead, the focus is on the relationships and connections themselves as the character becomes a canvas on which multiple different “Young Women” are painted on. Thus creating a wholly unique viewing experience in its end product. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things‘ embrace of its very cerebral storytelling in a way reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s exploration of a failed relationship. Only it’s bigger than that as the film tries to encapsulate multiple relationship dynamics. In other words, this strange storytelling technique is tailor-made for the keen surreal eye and mind of Charlie Kaufman.
Coming off a terrific performance in last year’s Wild Rose, Jessie Buckley once again proves to be an actor to keep a close eye on. Her ability to embody a character’s reticence before transforming into a completely different persona while also juggling light confusion about the constantly changing reality is nothing short of impressive. This is easily one of the most mesmerizing performances of the year. A moment early in the film where she recites a poem is heartbreaking and packs the emotional punch of a full narrative arc contained in just a few moments of screen time.
Likewise, Jesse Plemons’ performance as Jake keeps pace wonderfully. Unlike the Young Woman, Jake’s shifts in personality are far more subtle as he never really changes into an entirely different person. Instead, the male side of the relationship shifts personas while still remaining the character of “Jake.” This constant in the film allows for tension to take hold as well as deliver clever interactions between the Young Woman and Jake’s parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis.
Collette and Thewlis elevate I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ surrealism through their dynamic performances. Their scenes open the film up to examine more than just the relationship of Jake and the Young Woman. It’s where the film shines as it showcases both Jake’s upbringing as well as the relationship of his parents. In a mesmerizing sequence, the Young Woman encounters Jake’s parents in their farmhouse at different and alternate stages of their lives. Somewhat reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s final sequence, I’m Thinking of Ending Things explorers the effects of aging and debilitating mental faculties with a poignancy that hits hard. The ephemeral nature of this sequence makes it all the more impressive.
Through its many surreal shifts, I’m Thinking of Ending Things closes in on the audience with tense instability in the Young Woman’s sense of safety. While fear and confusion are heighten in its third act sequences, the film doesn’t quite beat the sequences with the parents in terms of poignancy. Yet, it still leaves a lot for audiences to ponder about interpersonal relationships and the inherent risk that comes with opening yourself up to someone. A particularly haunting moment involves the Young Woman alone in the car contemplating how she and Jake met. This version of her contemplation paints a much darker picture of their meet-cute compared to a similar story early in the film. It unnerves and unsettles in a way that brings home how minor concessions can lead to deep feelings of doubt and emotional claustrophobia.
The film swerves into its abstract tapestry of human relationships in its final act. Filled with beautiful choreography and a sense of loss and doom, I’m Thinking of Ending Things leaves a lot to ponder amidst its wonderfully absorbing and peculiar final moments. This is a film that will take root in your mind long after it leaves your Netflix watchlist.
Currently in theaters, I’m Thinking of Ending Things premieres Friday, September 4th on Netflix
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.