When I read a book, I feel accomplished. When I read a book based on a film, I feel elitist. When I read a book based on a film before its release, I feel completely untouchable. I know I shouldn’t, as it’s not a huge accomplishment by any means, but being that kid growing up who never read Harry Potter before the films and feeling left out for my delayed love of reading, it’s a strangely cocky complex I’ve taken with me. Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is one of those novels I not only read, I read it in a single sitting. It’s one of the more uneasy novels I’ve read in recent memory, and it truly felt unfilmable in the same way people view Dune or Infinite Jest as unfilmable pieces of literature.
Enter Charlie Kaufman, the idiosyncratic filmmaker behind such films as the screenplays for Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as well as the writer and director of cult hits Synechdoche, New York, and Anomalisa. Taking on his first adaption since 2002’s Adaptation, there exists both the uphill battle of adapting the story of the novel itself, as well as injecting his trademark elements as both a writer and director into the work, and striking the balance between the two without losing the audience along the way.
And lo, let me count the ways Kaufman succeeds in taking something seemingly impossible and pulling it off with ease and grace.
i’m thinking of ending things follows an unnamed young woman (Jessie Buckley), who is taking a roadtrip with her new boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to meet his parents (David Thewlis, Toni Collette) for the first time at their remote farm. While the relationship is still fresh, the young woman is already considering breaking up with Jake as she just doesn’t feel like her heart is in the right place to string him along if she doesn’t feel right. Upon arrival, she notices strange oddities with Jake’s childhood home, his parents, and Jake’s behavior once inside. While attempting to justify these oddities as mere quirks, the young woman begins to unravel throughout the night, realizing she might be more in over her head in her relationship than she thought.
Kaufman, both narratively and stylistically, executes a near-perfect adaptation of Reid’s novel. Not the most faithful, but it fixes many of the problems that did take the book down a bit, while issuing his own intricacies in the place of that which he cannot adapt. The film does not feature as much of the gut-wrenching terror of the novel’s first-person storytelling and explicitly psychological horror finale, but what the adaption loses in the constant exploration of the young woman’s thought process, we gain in Kaufman’s insane ability to capture both the eccentricities and mundanity of interpersonal relationships. The connection between the characters feels much stronger and the stakes, despite being much less “life-and-death” than the novel, feel bigger on the personal level.
Much of what makes this adaption so wondrously engaging is the work of the cast, which imbues the characters with a sympathetic, albeit incredibly suspicious air throughout. You never know who really means what at any time, and that cloudiness surrounding the intentions of any character’s words and actions at any time are carried off fabulously. One of my bigger issues with the novel was that the story took place largely in the young woman’s head and it never felt like she got the same shine as Jake did as a character. While in the narrative structure of it all, it can be argued that could make sense. In the film, Kaufman gives the young woman an immense amount of depth and meaning that didn’t feel completely there in her initial iteration, making her feel more like Jake’s equal than his lesser. This is filled out by Buckley’s wonderfully melancholy performance at the center of the film. There’s an inevitability to the film’s central idea of wanting to “end things” and Buckley carries this weight with her like a backpack full of stones throughout the entirety of the film.
Opposite Buckley, Jesse Plemons brings a gleefully hopeless performance to Jake, expanding and heightening the unique character journey he gets in the film. There’s much less of a sensationalist aspect to Jake that makes him feel a lot more human, both in Plemons’s performance and Kaufman’s writing of him. He dips between clueless ambivalence and a confounding ghastliness that gives the audience ample room to flip flop on whether the young woman’s desire to end things is truly justified. It’s a wonderful complement to Buckley’s role that culminates in one of the most stunning back-and-forth finales of this year.
And then there’s David Thewlis and Toni Collette, waiting patiently on the sidelines for their scene-stealing supporting performances that simply make me happy to be a film-lover during a time where these actors get to be at their creative height. The mystery of Jake’s parents is one of uneasy doubt, but also of great desperation that only makes you want to hug them, even if you greatly fear them at the same time. They both inhabit the tropes of the typical “empty nesters” looking for an easy transition to old age, but restlessly cannot find it. They’re a paradox of emotion that you want to run from, but are simply drawn to.
Despite hitting all the same points, Kaufman institutes a massive genre change over the novel, especially come the finale. Gone is the intense psychological horror, and in comes a far more introspective, poetic framing of the final act of the story. As a horror-lover, it took a second to embrace these changes, but as I saw Kaufman’s vision unfold on the screen, I knew that it was simply best to go with everything he envisioned with the film. It’s a film more interested in the “why” of it all, as opposed to the “what.” It takes the time to flesh out moments and restructure a story that lends itself more to film.
On top of everything else, it’s a gorgeously fluid film shot by Polish cinematographer Łukasz Żal, who achieves both a modern intimacy with the film’s unique shooting style and one reminiscent of grand Hollywood musicals of the pre-VistaVision era, framed in the timelessly beautiful 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Similar to Kaufman’s previous work, there’s a peculiarity to the film that will leave audiences undeniably polarized come its end credits. It’s not a film that can concisely be described, or even understood to its full extent, on its first watch, or without discourse with other viewers. This is a film made to be discussed, debated, and questioned every step of the way, and it’s something that those expecting the film described in the synopsis, poster, and trailer, might feel misled on.
That doesn’t change that i’m thinking of ending things isn’t a complete juggernaut of dramatic cinema. Kaufman takes a strangely elusive novel and transforms it into a genre-bending fever dream of the mundane stress of interpersonal relationships. It’s a decidedly melancholy film that leaves an incredible amount of room for interpretation, but make no mistake, this is undeniably a Charlie Kaufman film through and through. Paired with stunning cinematography, a smartly deconstructed screenplay, and some of the all-around best performances of any film this year, and you get a curious little creature of a film in all its strange, sad, gorgeous glory.
Available for streaming on Netflix September 4th, 2020.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.