“It’s why I like road trips,” a driver says to his his companion as they hustle down an icy highway. “It’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than the inside of your own head.” The exchange — though it’s tough to call it an exchange, given that it feels like the man behind the wheel is mumbling the thought aloud to himself — happens early in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel, and feels like one of many breadcrumbs being dropped for viewers. Make that “adaptation,” and yes, we’re aware of the irony in referencing that particular word in the context of this filmmaker. But the scare quotes are earned, as is the overall instability — of our narrator’s reliability, of what we’re watching, of reality itself. It uses the book’s already complicated storyline of “boy meets girl, boy takes girl to meet parents, things fall apart and the center cannot hold” to delve into deeper thoughts on memory, misery and mortality. And somehow, amidst all of the shifting perspectives and timeframes and overall blurring of lines, it also manages to move you to tears even as it leaves you bewildered and unmoored.
A veteran of TV writers’ rooms, Kaufman established himself as a name-brand screenwriter with Being John Malkovich (1999), followed by a series of scripts over the proceeding decade that turned potentially absurd scenarios into existential, oddly emotional comedies. He had the right voice for a woozy and wobbly early-21st-century zeitgeist, he had the right directors (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry) spiking his cerebral concepts with gonzo whimsy, and by 2005, he had an Oscar. When we got the pure, uncut Kaufman with his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York (2008), you could see the darker absurdities of his work inching toward a genuine bleakness. An artist constructs a work that mimics real life and then goes so far down the creative rabbit hole that the work replaces real life — it’s as meta as it is metaphorical. Criminally underrated, the movie now feels eerily in tune with our tilted, construct-your-own-bubble world. What followed for Kaufman was, beside co-directing the brilliant stop-motion-animated Anamolisa (2015) were years of stalled projects and false starts.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things not only nudges Kaufman back in to the spotlight, it also reminds you of how much that voice has been missed. And though the film does indeed begin with a road trip, it feels very much a product of living in a world both inside and outside one’s head. Waiting to be picked up by her new beau, a young woman (Jessie Buckley) — her name might be Lucy, or Louisa, or none of the above; again, it’s complicated — contemplates cutting things off. She’s a student, majoring in quantum physics … or perhaps painting, or film theory. The guy, Jake (Jesse Plemons), seems nice enough. They met at a local bar during a trivia night, or possibly she was a waitress who served him. Either way, after a few months (or maybe it’s just been a few weeks?), the relationship seems to have run its course for her. Still, they’re planning on venturing out to his folks’ house out in rural Oklahoma, and away they go.
As with Reid’s book, the first act is more or less a philosophical back-and-forth that takes up 22 minutes of screen time. They talk of Wordsworth and long-titled poems (“you really get your words’ worth with him”), playground sets in front of abandoned houses, musical theater, movies, Mussolini, the all-purpose use of the exclamation “wow,” the weather. He shows off about how much he knows in regards to the subject of her upcoming thesis paper. She reluctantly agrees to recite something she wrote, which turns out to be a melancholy ode that happens to perfectly capture Jake’s mindset.
It’s a chance to get to know these two, as well as pick up on the actors’ respective rhythms: Buckley’s detours into goofiness before returning to a default set of wariness; Plemons’ halting, hesitant attempts at filling the silence mixed with hints of buried aggression. And both performers make the most of the car-as-verbal-tennis-court situation, playing off each other even when they seem to be stuck musing on their own. (Buckley is especially deft throughout, and coming on the heels of her turns in Wild Rose and HBO’s Chernobyl, as well being the high point of the low-hanging-fruit biopic Judy, you sense that you’re seeing a performer willing to take wild swings while coming in to her own.) Which is good, because things are about to get extremely screwy. Once they arrive at Jake’s childhood home, his mom and dad — god bless you, Toni Collette and David Thewlis — fret and fawn and channel the sort of fumbling stabs at connection many people associate with returning to the fold in general as an adult. You can never truly go home again, they say. Though if you have attempted that impossibility, you’ll recognize the inappropriate jokes and awkward silences and way-too-intense laughter. The longer you spend with these parents, sprung from American Gothic if repainted by Magritte, the more you start to see why Jake may be a little messed up.
Thinking makes the most of this four-square dynamic, planting a familial psychodrama in the middle of what you think might be a romantic dramedy or possibly a horror flick or perhaps even a perilous portrait of a woman under the influence of a breakdown. Speaking of A Woman Under the Influence: Kaufman has his unnamed heroine suddenly spew out several paragraphs of Pauline Kael’s takedown of that Cassavetes film verbatim. He also may have it out for a certain well-known filmmaker who’s namechecked during the end credits of an insipid romcom-within-the-movie. The filmmaker’s sweet spot is the point between funny ha-ha and funny WTF?, and those parameters give him a lot of room to play. Photos on the wall have a way of switching faces; bandages have a way of showing up on different sides of the same head between scenes. People are old and infirm, then young again. What’s up with that basement door covered in scratch marks, ostensibly from the family’s perpetually shaking pet Collie? Or, for that matter, the film’s mysterious fifth character, a school janitor (Guy Boyd) who we’ve seen watching the woman from a window, and we keep cutting back to for no apparent reason?
It may constitute a spoiler to say there are indeed reasons for this last part, as well as mentioning that the responsibility of connecting some of the dots is left up to the viewer. But Kaufman’s handling of the book’s somewhat twisty conceit, and more importantly his derivations from the original story, aren’t just willful look-ma-no-narrative-logic show-off tricks or inscrutability for inscrutability’s sake. The writer-director has located something at the heart of Reid’s story that he elevates from subtext to primary concern, about the way regrets have a way of eclipsing the bright spots of a life. And when you see where Kaufman is eventually leading you, that’s when everything takes on an emotional weight that sneaks up on you.
Oh, and the musical Oklahoma, a play that simultaneously generates and comments on nostalgia and features a song entitled “Lonely Room”? If you feel like it’s being conspicuously mentioned a lot throughout I’m Thinking of Ending Things, it’s not just your imagination. A two-fold payoff awaits. And before things indeed end, you may find yourself suddenly recalling your own litany of sentences never said, roads never taken, second chances never offered. Your own personal cast of characters might be waiting for you. You may come to the conclusion that all the confusion wasn’t worth the road/head trip. Or you might realize that Kaufman’s personal blend of seismic uncertainty, vulnerability and absurdity is exactly the destination you needed to end up at right now.