By Bradley Lane
While many modern filmgoers may not immediately recognize Charlie Kaufman by name alone, his body of work is vitally important to the landscape of modern cinema. Characterized by an idiosyncratic writing style focused on themes of existentialism, a keen sense of humanism and in turn, interpersonal relationships, Kaufman’s films have shaped a generation of new filmmakers. Filmmakers like Jordan Peele, Boots Riley and Josephine Decker owe, at least in some part, their absurdist styles to Kaufman’s early work like Being John Malkovich. It has been five years since Kaufman’s last film and now he has returned to deliver the Netflix exclusive I’m Thinking of Ending Things to continue to reinvigorate modern narrative fiction and in turn his approach to filmmaking.
Kaufman’s story begins with a young woman taking a day trip to meet her significant other’s parents. They haven’t been together for very long at all, but as soon as the film starts, she begins to consider ending things. What follows is an absurdist, often uncomfortable, dive into the psyche of our main character that left me speechless.
Often, if not always, Kaufman’s work is dense and confusing, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things is especially jarring. Adding to the dense nature of the film is its rich thematic intertextuality referencing works from the 19th-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma. The film even references critiques of other films like legendary film critic Pauline Kael’s scathing review of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Even more than what is typical for Kaufman, there is a particularly challenging intellectual quality to the film that I found fulfilling.
However, despite this heady material being necessary to fully understanding what exactly Kaufman is getting at, there is a strong emotional power to be felt in its runtime. The story has a blindsiding third act reveal that turns the entire story on its head and forces the audience to recontextualize everything they have seen up until that point. Whereas a lesser filmmaker could have endlessly indulged in this shift in perspective, Kaufman quietly allows the audience to sit with this new information to allow the film to breathe and ultimately feel like a more complete wholistic experience because of this choice.
In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, reality is all but unrecognizable and every one of the principal characters blend into one another, together in service of a main idea that explores how it feels to be lost in our own subjective reality. It instilled in me a deep sense of dread. It taps into a deep un-comfortability that comes with having the hopelessness of our individual existence confronted by the characters in the film. However, deeper still is a quiet but intense comfort in knowing that we are not alone in this wretched and endless search for truth in a seemingly indifferent world.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix. – 5/5 stars