Academy Award winner Charlie Kaufman scripted “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” mind-bending movies that essay themes of identity crisis, mortality and the meaning of life through a metaphysical or parapsychological filter. His latest project, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” an adaptation of Iain Reid’s bestselling novel and now streaming on Netflix, fits on the shelf next to his best-known work. It’s a fascinating road trip—and head trip—that is equal parts unsettling atmosphere and tension.
Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons are a new couple on a road to trip to visit his parents at their rural farm. Although she has misgivings about the relationship, and is thinking about calling it quits, they seem well suited, playfully singing show tunes and talking as they stay just ahead of threatening snow squalls.
The storm intensifies after they reach the farm and the couple are snowed in with his welcoming but eccentric parents, mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis). As they get to know one another over an awkward dinner the young woman’s (she’s never identified by name) feelings of unease intensify as questions arise about her boyfriend’s mental health.
On the way home a detour to an empty high school sends her further down the rabbit hole of doubt.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a cerebral, slow burn story of suspense and menace anchored by four terrific performances. Collette and Thewlis are wonderfully weird, bringing these strange, somewhat inappropriate characters to vivid life without giving away spoilers as to what’s to come. Plemons is well cast as the All-American boy with a secret but it is Buckley who dominates. As written the role is internal, much of the interesting stuff happens in her head, but her work is never cold or clinical. She brings warmth to the character as the very fabric of her psyche is being challenged. It’s a long strange trip but Buckley’s exploration of the frailty of the human spirit is compelling.
As director and screenwriter Kaufman takes his time, allowing the characters to mix and mingle, physically and perhaps mentally, and the suspense to build. It’s a tricky dance. He dispenses just enough information to move the story forward while creating an atmosphere that grows until the film’s final twenty, trippy minutes. Kaufman artfully brings the movie’s themes of regret and longing into focus with a bizarre and beautiful climax.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a haunting film made human by terrific performances.