As a newbie movie reviewer, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an intimidating film to tackle. It is a dense, strange film. Nothing is stable or fixed; names, ages, even identities shift constantly, and by the end the viewer is left uncertain as to what story it was they’d even been watching.
All of which is to say, it’s a difficult movie to review. I’m not even certain I understood it myself; which makes it difficult to offer a straightforward thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Still, as an unpaid, volunteer movie blogger, I have a sacred responsibility to bring my devoted readers the best film criticism no money can buy, and I take that responsibility seriously. So here goes nothing.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an adaptation of a novel by Iain Reid, and is written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. It stars Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, David Thewlis and Toni Collette. The story—theoretically—is of a young woman who is on her way to a remote farmhouse, to meet the parents of her boyfriend, Jake, whom she has been dating for about six weeks.
Those basic facts are easy to provide. But the next round of answers—What happens in the movie? What’s it really about? Is it good? Did you like it?—Well, those get a little more challenging.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is best understood as a horror movie. In parts it’s even shot like one: The opening scene has the kind of whispered voice-over over slow, languid shots of old wallpaper in an empty home that reminded me strongly of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. It isn’t a “scary” film, but it is suffused with an underlying sense of dread. Frequently, one feels the way they do as they’re watching a Final Girl approaching a door at the end of a long hallway. The only difference is that whatever is waiting behind the door is (probably..?) not a masked, knife-wielding psychopath, but some kind of unsettling psychological delocation.
I say “underlying” sense of dread, however, because there is another emotion sitting heavily on top, and that is melancholy. Melancholy is a beautiful emotion, but this film is desperately bleak, perhaps to a fault. At least once in the first thirty minutes it swerved into a gloominess that was so intense that I actually laughed out loud. It was so depressing I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t actually bone-dry comedy.
Even the visual palette is bleak, full of whites and greys, and desolate, snow-swept fields. The sound design contributes too. Wind, creeping drafts, and the endless clicking of windshield wipers is always just under the surface of the action. By the end, I felt like the chill had infected my bones. (Chalk that up as a win in the directing column, I guess.)
Charlie Kaufman is the man who wrote some of my all-time favorite films, including Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He also wrote and directed Synecdoche, New York. I single out the latter film, because it was with that one, when he finally stepped behind the camera himself, that I started to feel more alienated by his films than entertained. This movie, unfortunately, continues that trend, though that wasn’t the case until its final scenes.
This gets to whether or not I “liked” the movie. The answer is: kinda? I would break the movie into three Acts, and the last Act into two parts. The first two Acts are strange and slippery, yes, but fascinating. It wasn’t until the last twenty minutes or so that Thinking finally lost me. The following tracks my response to the movie by Act:
Act I: I like this quite a bit. The acting is phenomenal!
Act II: How bizarre! This is fascinating!
Act III-a: Still with it but starting to lose the thread a little. I still like how ominous everything feels…
Act III-b: Okay wtf.
In the early going, I was able to hang with the film because, despite the strangeness of its delivery, it was telling a beautiful story. As peculiar as the method was, the content was deeply engaging, and emotionally shattering. The story, as should be obvious by now, delves far deeper than just a visit to meet the parents. Over time, it becomes an agonized meditation on gifts squandered, opportunities lost, and potential unrealized. It’s fitting that it feels like a horror movie, since this is in many ways a movie about fear: of death, of age, of loneliness, and most especially of making the wrong choices.
Unfortunately, in that final stretch, it tips from “weird-but-good” to “batshit crazy and I’m checking my watch.” The artiness of the storytelling overwhelmed the story, and I just wasn’t sure what I was watching anymore. I was even willing to give the movie a pass for deploying interpretive dance—that most mockable of “pretentious” art forms—because I have seen it used to skillful and gorgeous effect recently (Twice, in fact, in the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and the Netflix series Giri/Haji). But once there was a conversation happening between a tertiary character and a cartoon pig, I was out.
I’ll turn now to the acting, which is utterly exceptional. Jessie Buckley is amazing. She pulls off an exquisitely complicated role, playing a character who is as disoriented by her circumstances as she is elusive to the audience. I was left utterly awed.
Jesse Plemons is just as much a revelation. I’m mostly familiar with him through his comedic roles—sorry, not a Breaking Bad fan; let that do what it will to my credibility—so his dramatic work here was a welcome surprise. His role is less showy than Buckley’s, but his performance is no less impressive for its subtlety. Buckley is the star, but the story is ultimately his: a story of a man filled with potential, but who gave in to fear and wasted it, and now looking back on his life, filled with regret.
In the end, I find myself haunted by a lingering question about this film—which, to be clear, is well written, competently directed, and phenomenally well-acted. It is a beautiful story, and for most of the runtime it is beautifully told. But in the extreme style of the telling— especially in those last twentyish minutes—the story becomes vague, the message gets muddled. What happens when a beautiful story is drowned out by the overwhelming artiness of its presentation?
Final Score: 3 out of 5 Bone-Chilling Road Trips.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream now, on Netflix.