Watching the trailer for Netflix’s new film i’m thinking of ending things, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride. Adapted from the mind-bending novel of the same name by Iain Reid and directed by Charlie Kaufman–who’s made a career of making weird movies–the basic plot follows a young couple driving through a blizzard so the girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) can meet her new boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) parents for the first time. Despite that simple premise, Kaufman fills his adaptation with surreal images, time jumping and a constant, low key sense of dread.
From the beginning, it’s clear this couple has problems. Buckley’s character (who is never definitively named) is clearly a melancholy sort based on her sullen stares and the overwrought poetry she writes, but her current malaise is mostly because she’s considering breaking up with Jake. And watching them interact in those early scenes, it’s easy to see why: she can barely stand him. Jake’s every attempt at humor, romance or even compliments are met with silence at best and disdain at worst and it’s initially difficult to understand why the young woman is so hostile to this seemingly sweet and attentive boyfriend.
Things take a sharp turn, though, when they arrive at Jake’s parents’ remote farm and suddenly Jake is equally prickly. Though it eventually becomes clear from the way Jake snaps at his father (David Thewlis) or flinches away from his mother’s (Toni Collette) touch that his shift is due to his strained parental relationships, his behavior initially seems like the first red flags in a horror movie. Whether it’s the way Jake’s annoyance that his girlfriend makes a big deal about the carcasses of lambs that have frozen to death in the barn or the way he says the dog is “mostly” responsible for the scratches on the basement door, Kaufman deliberately keeps the audience uncomfortable.
His most effective tool in maintaining that mood is the filmmaking itself. Whether it’s the scene where the girlfriend walks down the same stretch of M.C. Escher-like infinite staircase as she debates whether she should break up with Jake or the way Jake’s parents age and de-age rapidly from one moment to the next, Kaufman is constantly calling attention to the oddness of his storytelling. Mostly, that’s an asset, emphasizing the way film so easily allows an incredible moment like the sequence where Collette’s character rapidly goes from a wheelchair-bound old woman, to a new mother and then to her deathbed in the span of minutes. That said, while Collette is a strong enough actor to sell that moment, Thewlis often seems adrift, overplaying his character’s weirdness in a way that isn’t so much unnerving as it is campy.
Still, loud as Kaufman’s filmmaking choices can be, they’re never as explicit–or cringeworthy–as the way he repeatedly uses dialogue to indulge in art critique. Some of it aids the storytelling, like the scene where the girlfriend shows Jake’s parents pictures of her paintings and the father complains that they don’t make him feel anything because there aren’t any people in the landscapes. Others, like a tired discussion about the sexual politics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” feel like lazy shorthand for making Jake and the girlfriend’s relationship feel more fragile. Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is a scene where the woman mercilessly dissects director John Cassavetes’s 1974 film, A Woman Under the Influence.
Taken purely as a conversation, the scene is both indulgent and risks feeling numbingly didactic for viewers not interested in film criticism. However, as she does so many times throughout, Buckley’s performance elevates that moment. As the girlfriend criticizes Gena Rowlands’s acting as, “the most transient big performance I’ve ever seen,” Buckley is suddenly smoking a cigarette. It seems like just another jarring choice to throw off the audience, but Buckley’s performance shifts too and her exaggerated line readings suddenly sound like a gentle Rowlands impression. In a lesser actress’s hands, the performance could seem overdone, but Buckley so deftly smoothes out the character and film’s abrupt tonal shifts that she’s largely responsible for why the film works at all.
However, good as Buckley is at playing her character’s existential and temporal crisis, the longer the film goes on, the less interested it becomes in either the reasons for her internal turmoil or the character herself. Rather, as i’m thinking of ending things moves toward its end, the clearer it becomes that these characters aren’t occasional vehicles for Kaufman’s film criticism, but that the art critique is the point. That’s perhaps best expressed in the scene where the film’s point of view subtly and permanently shifts from the girlfriend to Jake, when the passing references to Oklahoma! suddenly become the framework for the film’s last act.
As Buckley and Plemons stare at each other from opposite ends of a hallway in his old high school, dancers Unity Phelan and Ryan Steel respectively replace them, performing a pas de deux that mirrors the same dance number that ends the first act in Fred Zinneman’s 1955 film version of the Rogers and Hammerstein play. With its swelling music, Peter Walker’s romantic choreography and the way the dull atmosphere suddenly becomes bright and colorful, the scene is one of the film’s best. Unfortunately, as it goes on and Kaufman makes Jake function as both Curly and Jud to the girlfriend’s Laurey, what he’s ultimately trying to say through this quotation becomes not just muddled, but frustrating in the way it brings Buckley’s character from complex person to tired archetype.
There’s a moment during the scene where Buckley as the girlfriend as Gena Rowlands says of A Woman Under the Influence, “it’s unclear whether the characters are unconscious or whether it’s Cassavetes who’s unconscious of what he’s doing,” and it would be easy to apply that same critique to i’m thinking of ending things. Maybe, by including that line, Kaufman is admitting he doesn’t quite know what he wants to say through his film analysis and cliché existential musings. Or, maybe he’s preempting those who would accuse his film of the very same issue, making them look smug and ridiculous for assuming he’s not smart enough to understand his own point. Still, regardless of how aware Kaufman is of his film’s failings, it doesn’t make them any less disappointing for a viewer. As the woman puts it during that same rant, “this two-hour-and-thirty-five-minute movie leaves you too groggy to do anything but moan.”