Charlie Kaufman’s First Movie in Years Is a Mind-Bender

Netflix’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is presented as a psychological-horror drama, but it’s so much more.

Mary Cybulski / Netflix

“‘Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’ That’s an Oscar Wilde quote.” So says the unnamed protagonist of I’m Thinking of Ending Things in one of her many internal monologues. Only four major characters populate Charlie Kaufman’s new film, which debuts Friday on Netflix—a woman; her boyfriend, Jake; and his parents, whom she’s about to meet. But the strange conversations that drive the plot feel like they’re coming from dozens of voices and a thousand different directions. The viewer questions what is real and what is merely the echo of memory.

If that sounds confusing, or even downright hostile to the audience, well, that describes the Charlie Kaufman experience. He’s a celebrated screenwriter, who won an Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But as a director, he’s made only three feature films in 12 years, each of them a challenging and rewarding work. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is based on the chilling novel of the same name by Iain Reid, and is presented as a horror movie, in which a routine trip becomes a nightmare. But, as with all of Kaufman’s work, so much lies beneath those genre trappings.

The early action is largely confined to a car on a snowy country road, where our heroine (played by Jessie Buckley) and Jake (Jesse Plemons) banter amiably while driving to the farm where he grew up. But the woman’s inner thoughts suggest something darker is afoot—she’s thinking of ending things, knows that Jake will never meet her parents, and is on the trip only out of curiosity. Jumping between mundane dialogue and fraught internal confession is a Kaufman specialty, and every pause in the script feels rife with tension.

Mary Cybulski / Netflix

The second act introduces Jake’s parents, an overbearing pair played by David Thewlis and Toni Collette. His mother is a homebody who’s so tightly wound, she’s practically snapped; in multiple scenes, she reminisces on Jake’s childhood and adulthood almost simultaneously. After an awkward dinner, time begins to mutate: Buckley’s character stumbles from room to room and encounters Jake’s parents at different ages. This kind of subconscious-plumbing psychodrama—which derives its scares from our fears of aging, loneliness, and decay—has been a favorite of Kaufman since his first movie screenplay, 1999’s Being John Malkovich.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no ordinary meet-the-parents drama. There’s a reason the action keeps cutting to an old janitor (Guy Boyd) cleaning a high school on a lonely night shift. On first viewing, the film works as a whirlwind of atmosphere more than anything else, so I noticed the hints about the janitor’s identity bread-crumbed throughout the script only after rewatching. Reid’s novel builds to a horrifying twist, but Kaufman, who has never cared for such plotting norms, takes his movie down a more crooked road in its final act.

As the story unfolds, its fuzzily defined characters see their identities shift in unforeseen ways. Sometimes, they recite reams of dialogue that seem to come out of nowhere (including excerpts from a Pauline Kael movie review). The musical Oklahoma!, an ostensibly cheerful work that contains a lot of inner darkness, is a prominent motif in the film. Through it all, Kaufman prods the viewer to consider not only the couple on screen, but also the sad dynamics that drive so many relationships: the desire to be seen as smart, independent, and accomplished, but also the deeper desire to simply not be alone.

This is a work of adaptation, Kaufman’s first since the multidimensional comedy Adaptation (a movie about the difficulty of adapting a novel for the screen). Though he’s kept the structure of Reid’s novel, Kaufman’s obsessions and mordant views on romance bleed through every frame. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is long (two hours and 14 minutes) and often frustrating, but it’s also incredibly satisfying on rewatch, which makes its Netflix release a boon. There’s a weird thrill to getting lost inside this movie, only so you can study every odd detail from new angles, over and over again.