Netflix has given a platform to various voices in the Hollywood industry such as Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Dee Rees (“Mudbound”), and most recently Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”), in which filmmakers get to bring their distinct visions to life with the autonomy they wouldn’t be afforded at a traditional studio. As Oscars voters have become more accepting of the streaming giant’s offerings (see Laura Dern’s best supporting actress win for “Marriage Story”), it’s encouraging to see Netflix roll out the red carpet for Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” With critics weighing in with mostly positive reviews, Kaufman — who serves as the film’s writer, director and producer — along with his below-the-line team, could be an underdog contender in this year’s unusual awards race.
The film tells the story of an unnamed woman (Jessie Buckley) traveling with her new boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at a secluded farm. Narrating her feelings and ponderance about her life and relationship, she questions everything she’s come to know.
Some of the film’s brightest spots are the film’s narrative unfolding, which in many ways is his second-best screenwriting effort to date (after ”Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). Based on the Iain Reid acclaimed novel, intertwining genres of dark comedy, drama and horror, the movie rests comfortably on its engaging dialogue and narrative twists. Adapted screenplay is a category that has shown to be very accepting of more unconventional pieces of art, as seen by a victory for “Jojo Rabbit” in 2020.
But it’s not as clear, given its early fall release date, how the film will navigate the other branches of the Academy, critical guilds and awards season groups. While it won’t be challenging to convince an Oscar voter to watch a Kaufman film, his previous two directorial efforts have struggled to land more than a cult following. In 2008, “Synecdoche, New York” proved to be a bit too strange for AMPAS’ tastes. His follow-up animated feature, “Anomalisa,” found its way into the animated feature race with its very adult themes. Still, it didn’t have enough support to overtake the winner “Inside Out.”
Kaufman’s Academy relationship is still a healthy one given his three prior writing nominations: “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (for which he eventually won best original screenplay in 2004).
Admittedly not going to be a casual, easy watch for normal couch-sitters on a Friday night in their living rooms, the film asks and requires a lot from its viewers. This could be a more challenging watch for the Academy membership at large. The key group to likely embrace the film will be the writer’s branch, who tend to love cerebral, more in-depth narratives as shown by past nominees like “Roma” and “The Lobster” and winners such as “Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” and “Her.” My gut check says Kaufman could find traction in the adapted screenplay race this year.
The standouts in the cast fall within the two jaw-dropping performances from Buckley and Plemons. Buckley, who garnered many breakthrough prizes last year for “Wild Rose,” including a BAFTA nomination for leading actress, is brilliant. Uniquely expressive in her facial movements, and even more with her line delivery, Buckley is ushered by Kaufman through a world that unfolds simultaneously for her and the audience.
Plemons continues to expand and show his acting range, and as the unpredictable and slightly overbearing Jake, he gets to explore some new areas of his abilities. Not sure we can ever listen to “Oklahoma” the same way again. By far his strongest, fully realized turn of his career, Plemons’ acute and peculiar choices that he’s been known for, is a perfect marriage of art and artist.
While the Emmys have cited Plemons for his television achievements, he has yet to break out in the movies in a big way truly. Looking at his upcoming awards year with roles in Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah” and Scott Cooper’s “Antlers,” Plemons may be able to emulate past acting nominees with multiple projects in one year who consolidate their support behind one film (i.e. Jessica Chastain for “The Help,” John C. Reilly for “Chicago,” Jim Broadbent for “Iris”). The trick will be regarding which category he decides to campaign in. Most certainly to be a supporting role in “Messiah,” his work in Kaufman’s film may be straddling the lines between lead and supporting. But as a category fraud alarmist, I think it’s more of a leading role.
In navigating the world that Kaufman builds, it’s hard not to appreciate the cold yet bold camera work of Lukasz Zal, previously nominated for “Ida” and “Cold War.” It’ll be interesting if the DPs bite for him, along with the production and set designers coming to bat for Molly Hughes (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part I”) and Mattie Siegal, in her set decorating debut.
Along with Kaufman, Netflix’s adapted screenplay contenders are plentiful this year. Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is near the top of the list, which comes from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (“The Shape of Water”). Adapted from the J.D. Vance book, the film that stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who have a whopping 13 Oscar losses between the two of them, will be an anticipated drop.
The words of August Wilson are always worth anticipating after the adaptation of “Fences” received awards attention. George C. Wolfe’s upcoming “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which will feature the last screen performance of the late Chadwick Boseman, has been long rumored to be a big awards player. Along with Oscar-winner Viola Davis and Colman Domingo in tow, and adapted by actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson in his feature writing debut, keep an eye on this one.
Seemingly and possibly waiting in the wings is writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes” follow-up, “The White Tiger,” based on the Aravind Adiga book and starring Priyanka Chopra.
Paying close attention to the Academy voters’ film-watching habits can be tricky in a traditional year. Still, as we travel through an extended awards year, it’ll be curious to see if their tastes can mature to something a bit more high-grade.