We drift through an empty house, when a voice whispers: “I’m thinking of ending things.”
It’s a vague phrase, with many implications, none of which are, on the surface, good. We soon realize this voice belongs to our protagonist Lucy, who twirls and smiles under the faintly falling snow. There’s an older man in a nearby upstairs window, peeking through the blinds, repeating meaningless words under his breath. He’s watching her.
This scene opens I’m thinking of ending things, the newest film from the ever-churning mind of Charlie Kaufman. Adapted from Iain Reid’s breakthrough novel of the same name, the film is a tense and brooding story about countless things from aging and illness to awkward dinners and how art shapes our thoughts. All the consequence of a director who notoriously can’t shut off his brain.
The story follows Lucy (Jessie Buckley) as she travels along a sideroad in rural Oklahoma. She sits beside her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), waiting to meet his parents for the first — and hopefully last — time. That’s because she secretly wants to end things.
Along the drive, the young couple discuss many topics, some of which are mundane musings on biology, others are pretentious conversations about poetry. The dialogue teeters the line of thoughtfulness and ennui, and risks losing viewers to Netflix’s main menu if not for the phenomenal performances from the two leads.
As Lucy, Buckley exudes genuine apprehension to meet Jake’s parents. We see it in her calculated micro-expressions, the twitch of a lip, the tilt of an eyebrow, the subtle clench of her jaw. As the film unfolds, her character sheds her skin. Her mannerisms contort and her accent shifts, at one point uncannily resembling famed film critic Pauline Kael. Even her face morphs. Lucy, or Lucia, or Louisa (as her name is ever-changing), is elusive like the story she’s within.
While Buckley impresses with her range, Plemons does so through understatement. His performance as Jake persists in contemplative stares and selective mutism, but even he changes by the ending. We also see the masterful Toni Collette reprise her Hereditary role as the erratic mother. She oscillates between grating laughter, soulless stares, and smiling a little too much. David Thewlis provides some comic relief as Jake’s father, albeit the kind where laughing distracts you from the awkwardness and perversity of it all.
Herein lies the power of Kaufman’s film. It’s a mishmash of thoughts and emotions, delight with unease, joy with sorrow. You simultaneously want to scream, laugh, and cry. But you can’t do anything.
The score amplifies such inner tension through dissonant mixes. Sometimes, there are ominous woodwinds fighting against a melodic string ballet, with a flute flittering across octaves. Other times the score dissipates, giving way to an immersive diegetic soundscape — the whirling winds whipping against the car, the tedious wipers thumping back and forth, back and forth, and the faint squeals of a rusted swing set.
This film also features some of the darkest scenes ever made. Literally. As Lucy and Jake drive through the deserted country sideroads, the sky darkens, and the faint snowfall turns blizzardy. Soon the characters are bathed in black, only silvery contours of facial features breaking through, creating a menacing ghostly appearance. No matter how hard you try, you can’t look away. The unsettling feeling is enough to make David Lynch squirm in his seat.
Kaufman simultaneously ratchets up our unease through razor-sharp attention to detail. It’s in the kitchen wallpaper changes between scenes, the characters’ clothes altering as they move between rooms. Why does the dog vanish between continuous shots? Why are there scratches on the basement door? Why won’t Jake go near it? And wait, wasn’t the bandage over his left eye?
As we move through Jake’s parents’ house, and things really snowball into the absurd, Kaufman flexes his directing muscles. He subtly pans away from people as someone’s talking. Other times, like when Lucy enters the house, the camera will pan into the living room before she walks into frame. And when she sits down, it’ll scan back out and up an empty staircase, as if possessing a mind of its own. Alongside camera movements, Kaufman crafts unique tension through the narrow 4:3 aspect ratio. In night scenes, we’re sucked deeper into the claustrophobic centre frame, and in daylight, we’re forced to confront the things that lurk off screen.
I’m thinking of ending things eludes classification — combining horror with sentimentality and Kaufmanesque surrealism with pitch-black humour. At its heart, the film is a layered tale of loneliness, isolation, and mental illness. But the layers proliferate, with allusions to consciousness, gender identity, free will, and Freudian defence mechanisms.
The film reflects what many of us are experiencing in this time of prolonged isolation and rampant loneliness. Some of us numb our pains by escaping into fictional worlds; others try brushing anxieties aside as if everything’s normal. Kaufman asks us to confront our issues, perhaps even ruminate in them, to find meaning — or lack thereof — in the world. Because even if our world is meaningless, we have a shared experience and a moral responsibility to care for one another.
As humans, we can empathize with others, proactively and retroactively travel through our mental time machine, and ponder our existence. Likewise, to Kaufman, the boundaries between people are blurry. Between my conscious experience, writing this review on my laptop in a dim living room, and yours, skimming through this on your phone while waiting for your class to start. The film offers a stark meditation of our existence and free will, and ultimately, whether our thoughts are truly our own.
I’m thinking of ending things is a masterclass in foreboding — the skin-crawling sensation that something is off, but you aren’t sure what. Like a virus implanting itself, it’s on the tip of your brain, gnawing away as you watch the events uncoil. This is a film that’ll have you rationalize this feeling, have it sear into your mind and, if you give it a chance, have you thinking of things long after it ends.