Charlie Kaufman’s ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Drips With the Existential Dread of Life

The cinema has never produced a self-medicating psychoanalyst like Charlie Kaufman. Depending on where you are in life, his films can feel like you’re sitting on the therapist’s couch, or are playing the role of therapist listening to Kaufman. His obsessions revolve around melancholic realizations about life and the frustration of yearning for love, while considering it might not be real. Now as one of the latest major film names to join the Netflix roster, Kaufman has made a movie bluntly titled, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” The title is taken from the Iain Reid novel it is based on, but could have easily been conjured by the filmmaker himself. Since even amid a pandemic, Netflix is sticking to its tradition of giving prestige pictures a theatrical run, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” opens Aug. 28 in a few select markets before hitting the streaming service Sept. 4. Kaufman devotees, many of which remain, will no doubt be tempted to mask up and go seek this latest somber take on our inner selves. But for newcomers this is such a personal statement of a film, full of dense symbolism and meditative sorrow, that they might do better waiting to see it at home, where the ability to pause or do a second viewing helps absorb the uniqueness of Kaufman’s voice.

Summarizing the film is beside the point. The “plot” is pure existential dread. We open on The Young Woman (Jessie Buckley), watching as snow falls on her urban surroundings. She’s waiting to be picked up by Jake (Jesse Plemons), her boyfriend, for a road trip to his Oklahoma boyhood home. But this is not a romance. The Woman clearly states at the beginning via voiceover that she’s “thinking of ending things.” We get the sense this could either mean suicide or wanting to break up. The Woman and Jake drive into an icy, snow-blanketed landscape to a rural farm occupied by Jake’s parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette). What ensues is an evening of awkward chatter, tense revelations and the Woman’s realization that she and Jake don’t have much in common, except for their shared depressive state. She also seems to gaze into what the future may hold for Jake and his parents. The evening will have encounters with other strange characters, and a visit to the halls of Jake’s old high school, where a lonely janitor (Guy Boyd) seems to embody all of the existential anxiety of life.

There was a time when Charlie Kaufman seemed to be the cinematic prophet for millennials’ anxieties over living and failing at love. He first became known as the writer of lively, memorably puzzling films like 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” and the 2004 cult classic “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” All his work is one grand psychological landscape, even when he’s writing about the writing process itself (2002’s “Adaptation”). But once Kaufman began to direct, first with the endlessly debated 2008 “Synecdoche, New York,” a challenging movie about the very cycles of life, his work began to take on an even denser, melancholic quality. Netflix is the perfect home for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” because freed from the commercial limitations of box office concerns Kaufman is allowed to make something truly uncompromising. One has to almost describe it entirely in terms of moods. This is not a film for everyone, and yet it is about all of us. It is as complicated as those days when we sit and wonder what it’s all about. Kaufman is forever trapped in that zone where existence feels like a hard slog. If some filmmakers endlessly bask in the joys of life, Kaufman is the one who reminds us that living can also be sad. This year he has also published a novel, “Antkind,” another emotionally devastating exploration of the modern world through the eyes of a film critic. Kaufman has no time for self-help slogans or our current obsessions with positivity. At one point in this film the Woman and Jake get into a tense discussion over the recent, controversial re-evaluations of the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” It’s almost a model for Kaufman’s sense of how the smallest, most distant issues from our daily lives can trigger an emotional clash. Only Kaufman would take a break to let The Young Woman suddenly quote large passages of the legendary Pauline Kael’s review of John Cassavetes’s “A Woman Under the Influence,” in full critic mode, yet turn the review into an observation of the tensions within this doomed relationship.

A large section of the film involves the visit with Jake’s parents, which is brilliantly staged with an acute sense of detail. It combines stark realism with dream logic in a delicate dance, perfectly evoking the anxiety of Jake introducing his girlfriend to parents whose very way of being seems to irk him. Toni Collette’s Mother talks too much, laughs a little too goofily, while David Thewlis’s Father is prone to moments of awkward silence, as if he’s trying to process what you’re talking about. The Woman is a chemist, doing studies on rabies, which prompts a clunky chat about how Marie Curie is the only famous chemist the parents know about. Never does Kaufman hint if we’re in a dream or not, even when The Young Woman ventures into a strange basement Jake tries to keep her from peering into, or when the parents suddenly age, as if The Young Woman can see into their futures. Kaufman wants to make both a psychological observation about how people in a certain place in life perceive situations, and set the feeling of an experience. This is how it feels to be in someone else’s home and sense the roots of their depressive state. Kaufman is an elegant director, filming these moments with baroque framing and exquisitely sparse production design. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal, who filmed eloquent somberness of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” and “Cold War,” gives the film a dreamy ruggedness. 

Some critics have tried to describe “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” as some sort of horror film. This is a miscalculation in interpreting the film. It is unnerving, but not frightening. Unless some interpret it as scary because we do live in a society where aging is the great enemy, so the scenes of the older Janitor wandering the halls of Jake’s high school, sitting alone while watching a ridiculous rom-com on TV (guest-directed by “Forrest Gump” director Robert Zemeckis), rattle some with its mood of inevitable loneliness. There are some surreal pit stops in this film, as when Jake and The Young Woman stop at an ice cream parlor amid a snowstorm, out in the middle of nowhere, with two pretty twins and a simpler clerk who laments about feeling intimidated by beauty. Why stop at this ice cream spot in the middle of a snowstorm? But rarely do our dreams make complete sense or some of our choices in real life. The point is what the scene is trying to say. Kaufman later on will throw in a dance number at the high school, scored to lush strings by Jay Wadley, about the deceptive joy of young love. It’s all fleeting, and then the old Janitor has a vision that leads him to a finale surely to be endlessly debated. 

For those in tune with Kaufman’s wiring as a storyteller, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will certainly invite several viewings. His work as a director, from the grandiose “Synecdoche” to his 2015 stop-motion “Anamolisa,” cannot be wholly broken down with just one sitting. They’re like therapy sessions where each visit reveals more. Jessie Buckley’s performance alone is a masterful example of layered acting, where she evokes different tones and mindsets. Her depressive state swerves from thought to thought, making either acute observations or fearful assumptions about where she is in life. It’s a great breakthrough for Buckley, who brings a nuanced complexity only hinted at in her work in shows like “Misbehaviour.”

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is an example of how there is room in cinema for everyone and every feeling. Any true art form needs a Charlie Kaufman or two, to explore depths and human nature in a way apart from traditional dramas and entertainments. If Michael Bay can be on Netflix providing mindless action extravaganzas, there should be a space for Kaufman to artfully express his anxieties about being a wandering human in a dreadful world. Some artists just want to distract, others want to bare their soul.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things” opens Aug. 28 in select theaters and begins streaming Sept. 4 on Netflix.