Charlie Kaufman directs one of the most subtly horrifying movies of the year.
The last time Charlie Kaufman made a movie about a breakup, he won an Oscar. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind became an indie darling that’s been endlessly rewatched by the heartbroken for over a decade. But if you walk into I’m Thinking of Ending Things expecting the same kind of darkly sweet love story, you’ve got another thing coming. In fact, at this point the only thing you should know to expect from Charlie Kaufman is the unexpected.
After all, he’s hardly confined himself to one genre, role, or even art form. In the 16 years since Eternal Sunshine, he’s made his directorial debut, become a playwright, filmed a movie entirely with puppets, and published a novel. So when he set his eyes on adapting Iain Reid’s 2016 psychological horror novel, it really should have come as no surprise at all.
This is Kaufman at his most horrifying. Fans may be familiar with his offbeat visual style, his love of absurdity and metaphor, but in those previous works he’s never using his bag of tricks to toy with us. And oh, does he ever toy with us here.
The plot is deceptively straightforward: a young woman (Jessie Buckley, Fargo, Chernobyl), despite thinking her relationship has run its course, goes on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to visit his family farm and meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). But something’s a little… off.
This is Kaufman at his most horrifying.
There’s an uneasiness that settles over the film like a fine dusting of snow. Almost immediately, Kaufman is pushing the audience back on its heels, using only the subtlest tools to suggest that something isn’t quite right—but what? Is their something strange in their tone of voice? Is the color a little off? Has it shifted? And hey, wait a second, wasn’t her hair different just a moment ago?
It’s in these moments that I was longing for the theater experience, where the impulse to pause or rewind, even for a second, would be completely out of my hands. Because the film wants you to second-guess yourself. It wants you to feel unsteady, even if you can’t figure out why.
But don’t worry—the discomfort won’t stay subtle for long. As film progresses, it drifts farther and farther from reality until it’s almost impossible to tell what’s actually happening and what’s just part of our heroine’s thought process.
Buckley’s turn as our lead is captivating. She feels incredibly relatable, particularly as she ponders the nature of her relationship. After all, it’s her narration that guides us and most of us have been where she is—several weeks into a relationship that might be good, but isn’t great, itching to move on.
Plemons, who more and more resembles the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, is perfectly aloof as Jake. He’s always had that small-town-boy thing down pat (just take a look back at his Friday Night Lights days), but there’s an edge to him here. It’s as if he radiates discomfort, putting everyone around him, even the audience, on edge for reasons that are hard to pinpoint.
Once you get the full cast of main characters in the same room, though, that’s when the fireworks pop off. As soon as Jake, his girlfriend, and Jake’s parents all sit down to dinner, it’s delightfully excruciating. Toni Collette somehow wraps her Hereditary energy in Midwestern mom vibes and David Thewlis fully inhabits the role of disconnected dad. Jake squirms in their presence and our lead struggles to lead the conversation amid awkwardness that is downright painful. It’s this scene that sets off an unraveling that peaks when the couple makes a quick pit stop at Jake’s old high school on their way home.
All the skin-crawling anxiety aside, I’m not sure that Kaufman succeeds in making this a true horror film. Knowing the filmmaker as his fans do, scenes that might completely unmoor an audience in another context can be greeted with curiosity here. That said, Kaufman is also clearly deviating from the book in a handful of respects, including dropping several more explicit plot points.
So is it horror? I don’t know. But perhaps that doesn’t really matter because what we’re left with is a mind-bending exploration of what it means to end a relationship. It’s also a look at the expectations we put on our partners and ourselves. It’s a look at our relationship to time in general. In a word? It’s pure Kaufman, and as such it’s one of the most interesting and original films of the year. Don’t skip it.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things premieres on Netflix September 4th.