Producers: Anthony Bregman, Charlie Kaufman, Robert Salerno and Stefanie Azpiazu Director: Charlie Kaufman Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman Cast: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Gay Boyd, Hadley Robinson, Gus Birney, Abby Quinn, Colby Minifio, Anthony Grasso, Teddy Coluca, Jason Ralph, Oliver Platt, Jason Ralph, Frederick C. Wodin, Ryan Steele and Unity Phelan Distributor: Netflix
As was the case with Spike Jonze’s 2002 “Adaptation,” ostensibly a film version of Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief,” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman—who also directs here—has employed Iain Reid’s novel more as a springboard for his own fancies rather than a source to be followed slavishly. The operation isn’t as radical this time around—Kaufman doesn’t turn the original into the story of a struggle to write a screenplay rather than an adaptation in any real sense—but it is substantial, reworking the material into something expressive of his own obsessions: while preserving to a great extent the skeleton of Reid’s book, Kaufman has made it his puzzle as much as the author’s.
The result is a film that will fascinate—though perhaps also infuriate—admirers of Reid’s work. But it’s also likely to exasperate many Netflix subscribers who might tune in to it nonchalantly. It’s a good thing the service apparently count as viewings any call-ups that last for only a few minutes, but one can easily imagine a lot of impulse viewers bewildered after five or ten minutes and clicking over to something else. For them, the title might become something of a suggestion—“I’m Thinking of Ending This.” But giving up on it would be a mistake, though at over two hours the film will tax your patience as well as your ability to decipher obscure clues.
The first act involves a long drive through a snowstorm to a remote farmhouse. The driver is Jake (Jesse Plemons), a talkative, if somewhat insistent fellow who might be a teacher, given his occasional mention of students. His passenger is a “young woman” (as she’s identified in the closing credits) whose name changes throughout the film (it’s usually, but not always, Lucy) as also does her profession (at one moment she’s identified as a biologist, at another a painter or poet, and at one point a gerontologist). She’s the person who’s thinking about ending things with Jake, whom she’d met only a few weeks back at a trivia contest (at least in one version—elsewhere she’ll offer several different accounts, one in particular much less positive). And he seems to intuit what she’s thinking.
When they arrive at his childhood home, Jake insists on first showing her around the frigid barn, where she observes a pile of dead lambs among the sheep and Jake tells her a gruesome story about the pigs, which died after becoming infected with maggots. Finally they go in to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). She’s high-string and hard of hearing; he vacillates between being overly friendly and abrasive, and boasts a British accent that’s wildly out of place. Throughout the evening—especially at dinner, where nobody seems to eat a bite before the guest begins clearing the table—Jake is irritable and nonplussed over his parents’ gushing over him, often getting their stories wrong.
But most extraordinary is the fact that mom and dad grow older and younger over the course of the visit. At times the father is relatively spry and dark-haired, at others grey, doddering and Alzheimer-ridden. In her younger self the woman is imperious, demanding her guest help with the laundry; then she’ll be bedridden and near death. The conceit might remind you of the finale of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and the theme of time shifting is italicized by the fact that at one point a television is shown playing an old Mr. Peabody and Sherman cartoon.
Meanwhile the guest investigates Jake’s childhood room. She finds there a book of poetry which includes the very work that she’d recited on the drive up as her own latest composition. She also spies a collection of film reviews by Pauline Kael; and one might also glimpse a DVD of the Ron Howard movie “A Beautiful Mind.” Later, when she visits the basement—the door of which is marked by deep scratches, as if someone has desperately clawed at it—she sees on calendars paintings that, at dinner, she had called up on her phone and identified as her own.
Eventually the young couple leave, after Jake has laboriously put on the tire chains he’s frequently mentioned as insurance that they’ll be able to get back to the city that night, since she has work in the morning. During the drive they get into a quarrel over a film—John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence,” which she denigrates in words drawn from Pauline Kael’s vitriolic review, though she gives no notice that she’s quoting it. Jake insists on stopping at an isolated ice cream drive-in called Tulsey Town, whose jingle the two sing while an old TV commercial for the place plays on the windshield.
The three girls managing the joint—two giggly blondes (Hadley Robinson and Gus Birney) and a somber brunette (Abby Quinn) who claims to be scared—seem oddly situated at the deserted store, and Jake hangs back as his girlfriend orders their smoothies. Once back in the car, they argue again whether the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is about rape (on the way up they’d disagreed over the subtext of “Many A New Day” from “Oklahoma!,” which gave Jake an opportunity to show his knowledge of Broadway musicals—until he suddenly wants to find a trash can to deposit the smoothies in, afraid they’ll slime up his cup holders.
That takes them down a snowy side road to Jake’s old high school, where he insists on going in after claiming to see someone watching from a window. Eventually the girl, who’s been insisting they hurry their drive back, follows him inside.
There she encounters a character we’re been seeing periodically throughout the film—a dour old janitor, who mops up the high school hallways as students drift by. We also observe him eating lunch while watching a “Robert Zemeckis” romantic comedy on TV—which relates a “cute meeting” of a couple that’s suspiciously familiar. Elsewhere he happens on a rehearsal of a number from the annual student musical—none other than “Oklahoma!”—featuring two girls we meet elsewhere.
Now our heroine finds the janitor in the school when she goes looking for Jake. She angrily tells another tale about how they met, and then suddenly she (now played by Unity Phelan), a younger version of the janitor (Frederick C. Wodin) and a far handsomer Jake (Ryan Steele) are caught up in a performance of the dream ballet from “Oklahoma!” which is in turn followed by a sequence in which a much older Jake (Plemons again) is receiving an award for service in which appears to be a huge retirement celebration, with an audience consisting of virtually everyone we’ve met before, most aged too. He gives a tearful speech that you might have heard before, and then walks onto the set of “Oklahoma!” to sing one of its songs—the painful lament “A Lonely Room,” sun in the show by Jud Fry, the third dancer in the dream ballet. We then cut back to the old janitor, who goes out to his truck and strips before being led back into the building by another bout of animation—a talking pig, dropping maggots as it goes. Or at least he imagines this.
It might take more than a single viewing to tease out what all of this (and much more) is designed to convey (in fact, two or three might not do it): as it turns out, the gist is not unlike Reid’s, but it’s much embellished. Kaufman poses existential questions about past and present, reality and illusion, memory and fantasy, love and its absence in the form of a giant puzzle with moving parts and esoteric reveals sprinkled along the way. You might complain that, in the end, his script is much about relatively little—that the message it ultimately presents is less profound than Kaufman intends. Or you might find it philosophically deep. It’s certainly funny in places and very sad in others.
Whatever the case, though, if you give yourself over to it, you should find the film worth the effort, simply for the pleasure of trying to connect the dots—and even if you can’t discern what some of them mean. Certainly the performances are superb down the line, with Plemons—looking and sounding increasingly like Philip Seymour Hoffman—and Buckley (“Wild Rose”) both extraordinary and Thewlis and Collette not far behind. The physical production—Molly Hughes’s production design, Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, Robert Frazen’s editing, Jay Wadley’s score, Peter Walker’s ballet choreography, Rosa Tran’s animation—is impeccable. The actors and craftspeople have collaborated with remarkable discipline and dedication to realize Kaufman’s vision, though it’s one that might send many viewers away scratching their heads.
Incidentally, the Pauline Kael review the girlfriend quotes from doesn’t appear in the book that she finds in Jake’s old bedroom. The Kael anthology it’s actually reprinted in is one entitled “Reeling,” which is what “I’m Thinking About Ending Things” is likely to leave you doing, love it or hate it. Like all of Kaufman’s films, it’s a cerebral challenge, but unlike most of them, it’s a challenge worth taking on.