“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” the new movie written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, opens with an extended road-trip sequence in which a young woman (Jessie Buckley) — she’s identified in the credits simply as the Young Woman — drives through a country snowstorm with Jake (Jesse Plemons), her boyfriend of six weeks, to meet his parents at their Oklahoma farmhouse. The first words we hear, in voiceover, are Buckley confessing “I’m thinking of ending things,” and she then describes what could be a suicidal tendency. But the words also apply to the relationship she’s in. Should she be ending that?
During the car ride, we see why that question might be hanging in the balance. Buckley’s young woman is no happy camper, but with her fast-break grin, her blithe putdowns, and her aureole of reddish curls, she has a cynical urban vivacity. But Jake, who sounds like he’s never cracked a joke in his life, is a painfully staid and passive fellow with a dry, droning voice and a way of showing off his arcane knowledge of things that can bring any conversation to a standstill. At his behest, the two discuss Wordsworth, Mussolini, the musical “Oklahoma!” and suicide bombers, but mostly they seem to be acting out their mutual sense of muffled despair. When Buckley tells us that she can’t imagine the relationship lasting, we nod our heads, thinking: It’s hard to see, actually, how it ever lasted past one or two blah dates.
Listening to these two, we can see what the problem is: They’re depressives who don’t spark each other. What they have isn’t a relationship — it’s a slow-motion death dance. And a movie about them is destined to be a kind of death dance, too. But then comes one of those lines of dialogue that reveals, almost inadvertently, where a filmmaker is coming from. Buckley’s character, having acknowledged her attraction to ending things, tells Jake that she actually thinks everything on earth wants to live. “Even fake, crappy movie ideas want to live,” she says. “Like, they grow in your brain, replacing real ideas. That’s what makes them dangerous.”
That line is a tell, because no ordinary person would say it. They might talk about movies, but not about “movie ideas,” and certainly not about crappy movie ideas replacing real ideas; that’s the way a screenwriter thinks. And what Charlie Kaufman reveals in that line is that he sees himself engaged in a war against fake, crappy movie ideas, a war that he’s fighting with real ideas. Okay, fine; that’s what any adventurous filmmaker does. But in the place where Kaufman is now working from, he has so dichotomized that conflict — between the fake and the real, between bogus Hollywood uplift and the terrible “truth” of what life is — that he’s presenting the audience with a film that’s an homage to hopelessness. There isn’t a spark of faith or good feeling in sight. That’s because Kaufman is now treating hopelessness as the ultimate signifier of integrity.
Going into a new Charlie Kaufman film, our own hopes as moviegoers are always raised, because at his best he’s a wizard of the imagination, and a uniquely grounded anti-romantic romantic. But “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” suggests a joyless couple out of a mediocre Woody Allen film crossed with “Barton Fink.” It’s not just a quirky, morose downer of a movie — it’s didactically morose. Kaufman seems to be saying that love is an illusion and that people, if they’re true to who they are, have no possibility of connecting. But he seems trapped in the blinkered point-of-view of a socially arrested high-school loser. We want honesty from a Charlie Kaufman movie, but “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which is based on Iain Reid’s 2016 psychological horror novel, is a bad-news “Twilight Zone” episode that isn’t telling difficult truths; it’s just a Debbie Downer dud. His films had more complex excitement, and more of a light-and-dark tingle, 15 years ago. He’s not growing — he’s curdling.
Starting in 1999, with “Being John Malkovich,” what a run he had! For about five years, Charlie Kaufman could do no wrong, and that’s because his movies, even when they weren’t perfect, had an unruly metastasizing life that seemed to fuse with the synapses in your own brain. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) was his magnum opus, and it was a thing of beauty — though one heard stories about how the film’s director, Michel Gondry, treated Kaufman’s script as an overgrown forest that had to be pruned into something shapelier.
That was 16 years ago. Kaufman took four more years to produce his next film (his first as a director), the postmodern head-scratcher “Synecdoche, New York,” which expressed the side of Charlie Kaufman that saw life as a crossword puzzle that could never be solved. For some of us, it was borderline unwatchable; for a small cult, it’s some kind of masterpiece. (These are the people who read all of “Finnegan’s Wake” in college.) But what strikes me is that having gotten that movie out of his system, Kaufman has done very little since. Is it because he’s become a specialist in writing screenplays that revel in their downbeat misanthropic density?
When Jake and the young woman arrive at his family farm, he shows her around, even though they’re in the middle of a freezing storm. In the sheep pen, a couple of lambs have died and are frozen solid, which inspires Jake to tell a lovely story about pigs who got eaten alive by maggots. I think it’s supposed to be a metaphor. (Life is like a pig eaten by maggots — you never know what you’re gonna get!) Then they go inside and meet Jake’s parents: his father, played by David Thewlis in an old man’s thin gray hair (with a mysterious Band-Aid on his temple), and Toni Collette, as his rambunctiously overeager mother. Moments later, when they’re seated at the dinner table, Thewlis, with thick brown hair, looks 30 years younger. So this is going to be a movie in which surreal things start happening.
The mother and father keep morphing in age, though that doesn’t make their personalities any less broad or more convincing. And the young woman’s profession keeps changing. First she’s studying quantum physics, then gerontology, then she’s a painter, then she’s a waitress. There’s a dog who never stops shaking himself off, and an ominous basement (as in “Don’t go in the…”). It seems naggingly odd that Thewlis is playing an “Eh, wot?” British farmer in the middle of Oklahoma (he acts like he’s at a pub), and Collette’s character is the kind of prattling narcissist who tears down her son when she thinks she’s building him up. No wonder Jake is such a lump. Except he’s also a jerk, the kind of boyfriend who treats his partner as an appendage, and Jesse Plemons, an actor I’ve always liked, seems to empty himself out to play a character who evokes Philip Seymour Hoffman’s torment without his passion.
The film’s quicksand reality keeps us watching, for a while. Yet “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” lacks the adventurous humanity that animated Kaufman’s “Anomalisa.” Once Jake and the young woman finish their visit, driving back through a blizzard, there’s still an hour of movie to go, and at that point it’s running on David Lynchian fumes. The two stop for ice cream at the Tulsey Town stand, and they get into a debate about John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” in which the young woman’s dialogue consists entirely of verbatim quotes from Pauline Kael’s review of it. Kaufman seems to have filled this movie with his obsessions, and Netflix (unlike Michel Gondry) doesn’t ask you to prune them. They’ll finance gifted filmmakers by the yard. That said, the problem with “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” isn’t that it’s too weird, but that it’s the work of a filmmaker who keeps asking “Is love possible?” even when he’s stacked the deck against it.