Charlie Kaufman always takes his viewer on a ride, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things — his first live-action film in more than a decade — raises his obsession with subjective experience to bracing new levels. “I don’t set out to do a mindf—,” the Oscar-winning filmmaker says. “I’m not setting out to do something that ‘tops’ some sort of brainteaser I might have done before. But there’s no question that I’m trying to build on the stuff that I’ve already done.”
Indeed, fans of the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind scribe and Synecdoche, New York director should pick up traces of his past work here. Ending Things begins as a sort of moody couple’s road trip, in which Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) drive out to his (slightly haunted) childhood home for her to meet his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette). On the way there, the sense slowly builds that things aren’t quite what they seem; upon arrival, the pair are thrust in directions that bend the laws of reality, memory, and love. “Loneliness and hopelessness and regret — these are things that are part of the fabric of this film,” Kaufman says.
Adapted from Iain Reid’s 2016 novel of the same name, Ending Things bolsters Buckley’s character into the complex heart of the tricky, increasingly fanciful story. For Kaufman, casting was key — and while he’d never heard of Buckley before a friend brought her up for the role, he was sold instantly. “It was one of those things where you see somebody who’s not yet known, and you go, ‘Oh my God, I have to get this person,’ ” he says of her audition, in which she was tasked to recite a poem that’s featured in the film. “She’s present with whatever is happening. Whatever she does, it’s real. It happens in reaction to the thing that she’s given.”
Kaufman expects viewers to get a stronger sense of what they’re in for once our central couple arrives at the parents’ house, the first of several extended scenes in Ending Things that feel utterly, brilliantly Kaufman-esque. (Another finds Jake abruptly pulling over at a Dairy Queen-like establishment — in the middle of the night, in the thick of a blizzard. It’s stranger than it sounds.) “The house represents the imagined interaction between someone you bring home to your parents — that panic that is twoheaded at that point,” he teases. “You’re worried about what they’re going to think about your parents, and you’re always worried about what your parents are going to think of them.” Safe to say whatever Jake’s anxieties are, Kaufman won’t let him — or his viewers — off the hook easy.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things lands on Netflix Sept. 4