'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' takes social anxiety to a horrifying new level of cringe

Brad Keefe
"I'm Thinking of Ending Things"

As we remain largely homebound, the collective movie experiences we’re having involve new releases on the large streaming services.

It seems like a year ago when we had the unifying experience of “Tiger King” (still perhaps the quintessential moment of pandemic viewing.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will not be a unifying moment. It could be one of the most divisive movies of the year. But what did you expect from a Charlie Kaufman film? Five years after his last film, the stop-motion animated “Anomalisa,” Kaufman returns with a Netflix exclusive that doesn’t see the writer-director toning down anything for a mass audience.

Is it the most uplifting experience you’ll have? Oh, hell no. But there’s beauty in the bleakness as Kaufman uses the source novel as a jumping-off point for his own exploration of aging, death, loneliness and the fragile string of sanity.

I’ve loved Kaufman’s previously divisive movies, so count me in.

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A young woman (Jessie Buckley) is taking a road trip with her new boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to his family farm where she will meet his parents for the first time. In her internal dialogue (and the title of the movie), we learn that she’s having second thoughts about the direction this relationship is going, and she questions taking this step.

Their conversations on the road play out as the sort of intellectual banter that can be unbearable. The tension is palpable, heightened by a winter storm that leaves the young woman wanting to turn around before they even arrive.

Upon meeting Jake’s well-meaning parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), her discomfort level rises, as does the audience’s. Soon it becomes apparent that things are not as they seem, with events taking a turn for the mind-bending and metaphysical.

For some (myself included), “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” plays out as one of the most uncomfortable horror movies ever. There’s something ominous in the air, and the feeling throughout can best be summed up as “cringe.” There’s much more at play, and Kaufman leaves so much open to interpretation that the most common reaction could be, “WTF did I just watch?”

Kaufman penned the scripts for “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and the movies he’s directed (“Anomalisa” and “Synedoche, New York”) have shown his willingness to go even further out when he’s at the helm. Here he goes in on the David Lynch-ian world of weird, with a blend of the social anxiety of Todd Solandz and some echoes of Stanley Kubrick. Much of the film is staged in a car driving through thick snow, and that claustrophobia and anxiety becomes its own character.

Adding to the potential pretentiousness, the film is shot in a 4:3 aspect, a rarity in the age of widescreen everything, but the cinematography of Lukasz Zal makes it purposeful and magnificently executed.

Even if the obtuse narrative throws you off, we can collectively appreciate the performances.

Colette and Thewlis are fantastic as Jake’s parents, who reveal that his intellectual apple fell quite far from that tree. Character actor Plemmons gives the performance of his career and a masterclass in bottled emotion that boils out of his own control.

But it’s Buckley who is the real star in a performance that would have her atop my Best Actress shortlist even under normal circumstances. In a film that often gaslights, her character is audience’s center, and it’s a haunting and near-perfect performance, one that shows one of Kaufman’s best decisions came in the casting.

Yes, some people will respond to this movie thinking they just lost a little over two hours which they will never get back. Those who have read Iain Reid's novel will have more answers, but Kaufman leaves much up to the audience’s interpretation.

Fortunately, its place on Netflix means it’s there for repeat viewings. I know I’ll be making them.