Charlie Kaufman’s latest is weirdness doubled and redoubled | Entertainment | Lifestyles


Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of Charlie Kaufman’s writing for the screen. His scripts for

Being John Malkovich

and

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

(directed by Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, respectively) are brilliant, funny and philosophical in equal measure.

But I’m a less constant fan of his directing. His last effort on that front, the stop-motion adult drama

Anomalisa

, was technically brilliant and interesting enough but left me cold. And his 2008 masterpiece that is

Synecdoche, New York

, remains one of the most affecting films I’ve ever seen – so much so that, 12 years on, I’ve never worked up the courage for a second viewing, so terrified am I of its dark corners.


I’m Thinking of Ending Things

falls somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t have the staggering scale of

Synecdoche

, but it’s also a little more accessible than

Anomalisa

, especially in the early going. Though by the time its two-plus hours are over you may find yourself lost in its peculiar, unique form of madness. Kaufman is probably at his best when collaborating with someone who can shave the rough edges off his ideas, lest they give you splinters of the mind.

It might be a little bit hard to piece it all together

Anyway, let’s begin at the saner end of the story: The Beginning. Jake and Lucy (Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley) are driving on a snowy night to visit his parents in the countryside. They’ve been dating for a couple of months, but she’s already thinking of ending things. (Can’t tell you how relieved I was to discover the film’s title doesn’t refer directly to suicide, though this being Kaufman, there are plenty of ruminations on mortality and bodily decay.)

The car ride is fairly straightforward, although Lucy is distracted by a brand-new swing set on what looks to be an abandoned property, and the viewer by a creepy-looking billboard that also seems to whisper something as they pass. (One of the benefits of this being a Netflix title is that viewers can rewind 10 or 20 seconds to confirm that, yes, that strange detail you thought you might have imagined did in fact happen.)

At the remote farmhouse, the weirdness doubles and redoubles as Mother and Father (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, leaning into the craziness) make a variety of off-putting, inappropriate comments, while Lucy tries her best to remain on best behaviour. The meeting has the tension of a horror film and the logic of a dream – characters change their appearance, their age and even their names, sometimes with a subtlety that makes you wonder whether it wasn’t a continuity error. But put your trust in Kaufman. Also, trust him at your peril.

The screenplay is based on the 2016 debut novel of Canadian writer (and former

National Post

columnist) Iain Reid, who set his story among the dark back roads of his native Ontario. Kaufman has moved things to the similarly semi-rural landscape of Oklahoma, and kept or perhaps even expanded on the novel’s confusing plot. In a 2016 interview with NPR, Reid said the book was “a lot about doubt and sort of questioning things and wondering and feeling a little bit of anxiety. And as you start to think more about what’s happening and who’s involved, it might be a little bit hard to piece it all together.”

No argument there. And I haven’t even gotten to the character of a high school janitor, who looks like an older version of Plemons. (The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, star of

Synecdoche

, would have been perfect in the role.) Or the trio of ice-cream servers, one of whom tells Lucy conspiratorially that she needn’t keep moving forward in time; she can stay at the oddly named Tulsey Town Dairy forever. It’s as if a scene from

Tenet

had suddenly infiltrated the movie – and honestly, that wouldn’t be the weirdest thing about it.


The New Yorker

recently ran a brief Talk of the Town piece on Buckley, who said that even during auditions, Kaufman kept telling her that her character was “molecular.” She explained: “I am a molecule of myself. But I’m made up of atoms that Jake has created, which then explode and disintegrate.” And then added: “I was crap at science.”

Is that a spoiler? Would it be a spoiler if I said that Lucy at one point turns into the late film critic Pauline Kael, reviewing

A Woman Under the Influence

? Or that a cartoon ghost of a pig gets some of the most moving dialogue in the film? Can you even spoil this movie at all, or is it like trying to spoil the dream you had last night, that you’re relating to someone who (obviously) wasn’t there and therefore doesn’t quite get it?

I think that’s it.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

would be what happened if humanity invented the dream recorder, allowing us to share in others’ bizarre nocturnal imaginings. So dive under the covers with Kaufman if you dare. I’ll be pondering a repeat viewing of

Synecdoche, New York

. It’s something I’m thinking of restarting.


I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available Sept. 4 on Netflix.


3 stars out of 5

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020





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