The title of i’m thinking of ending things is a double entendre, though hardly of the erotic variety. It means both what you initially think—suicide—yet also, more prosaically, it refers to the relationship between a young woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend of some seven weeks, Jake (Jesse Plemons). As the movie begins they’re en route, through a blizzard, to meet his parents for the first time at their isolated farmhouse, but she’s increasingly convinced she should call it quits.
The first 20 minutes or so of the film is devoted to her deliberations: interior, philosophical observations dexterously delivered by Buckley in voiceover. These are juxtaposed with banal, car-trip conversations in which Jake’s behavior—smothering, pedantic, if also genuinely caring—suggests her instinct is right. You get the sense that she’d rather talk to herself, in her own head, than to him.
Once they arrive at the farmhouse, i’m thinking of ending things spills out in a variety of absurd and unnerving directions. It’s where the Charlie Kaufman really comes out. The film is adapted from the novel by Iain Reid, but Kaufman, as writer and director, makes it thoroughly his. Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) are not only awkward (the wait for them to come downstairs is a particularly cringey case of Kaufmanesque comedy), but vaguely threatening. And that’s before they disappear and reappear as older or younger versions of themselves. Meanwhile, the film occasionally cuts away to scenes of an older janitor (Guy Boyd) tending to his tasks at a high school, pausing here and there to watch students rehearse for a production of Oklahoma!
As we learn more about Jake’s parents and get further clues about his past, there’s something to be lamented about the loss of focus on the young woman (emphasized by the fact that the credits only identify her as The Young Woman). The notion that i’m thinking of ending things is an exploration of a relationship’s demise, from the woman’s perspective, is a red herring. Buckley’s performance in particular—so emotionally and intellectually alert in that opening section—gets stunted with the shift in direction, moving her from prickly protagonist to perplexed bystander.
This transition does, however, take us into the sort of territory that Kaufman is adept at exploring: mortality, meaninglessness, malaise. Visually, he sets the tone at the start with the wintry atmosphere, as the camera alternates from being inside the car—where the conversation is cold—to outside, where wipers monotonously bat away the frozen snow. At the farmhouse, blots of blood in the barn and scratches on the basement door add an ominousness to the awkwardness. In this house, death is near, and maybe even desired.
I won’t reveal whose death, however. i’m thinking of ending things is a slippery, surreal experience that I wouldn’t want to spoil. Things grow stranger and stranger, until they slowly begin to click into place—not just as a Kaufman reflection on existential angst, but on the failure of art to meet that angst in a satisfactory way. There are references to the poems of William Wordsworth, the paintings of Ralph Albert Blakelock, and John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, all of which are sources of frustration rather than solace. (So, in different ways, is the work of Robert Zemeckis, considering he’s tweaked in one of the movie’s broader gags.) Kaufman’s last film as director, the stop-motion Anomalisa, was a meditation on misery that comforted viewers, if not itself, with its astonishing artistry. i’m thinking of ending things, while arresting in its own way, offers no such consolation. It’s depressing in form and function.