There are obvious points of comparison for Charlie Kaufman’s new film, I’m Thinking of Ending ThingsThematically, it shares a lot in common with Kaufman’s other work. Like Anomalisa, it’s about feeling isolated and alone in the world, even around your loved ones; like Synecdoche, New York, it contains an unusual and confounding time structure. Tonally and structurally, it reminds me a lot of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s similarly phantasmagorical tale of an unhappy couple trapped in a country house. But the best way I can think of to describe the experience of actually watching I’m Thinking of Ending Things is to imagine you’ve been asked to assemble a complicated piece of furniture without the instruction manual. All of the pieces are there; and you see how some of those individual parts connect and work together. You can admire the obvious intelligence and care that went into crafting those pieces. But the path to a coherent whole is not entirely clear — and often deeply frustrating.

It’s based on a novel by Iain Reid, and follows a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who takes a road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to visit his parents, who live in an isolated farm house. What begins as a simple family visit soon develops strange and even sinister dimensions. Jake’s mom (Toni Collette) and dad (David Thewlis) appear middle-aged in one scene and decrepit in the next. Jake introduces his girlfriend to the family dog, whose ashes appear a few minutes later in an urn in his childhood bedroom. The house’s basement is closed off to prevent “drafts,” but that doesn’t explain the scratch marks (or are they claw marks?) all over the locked door. While this creeping family horror unfolds, Kaufman repeatedly cuts to a seemingly unconnected story of a quiet janitor (Guy Boyd) going about his daily routine of cleaning a high school at night.

Both storylines build significant tension and dread; something terrible, we think, is going to happen. Or maybe it already has happened and it’s not yet clear what that something is. How that affects any of these characters, and why these characters should affect us, is tougher to describe. I’m Thinking of Ending Things returns to many of the subjects that have consumed Kaufman from his earliest days as a screenwriter: The complexities of memory and our individual, subjective perspectives on the world; the impossibility of maintaining a successful relationship over the long term; a fascination with (and fear of) death.

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Here, those elements are sprinkled between long stretches that boil down to being trapped in uncomfortable situations with awkward people. Buckley and Plemons drive for dozens of minutes, talking about everything from quantum physics to the nature of viruses. Then they’re trapped with Jake’s parents for a long time; more unpleasant chit-chat follow, some of which seems to contradict other sequences. One minute Buckley’s character is a physicist, and the next Jake calls her an expert on cinema after she recites Pauline Kael’s review of A Woman Under the Influence from memory.

Although the weird verbal detours are good for some chuckles, the further I’m Thinking of Ending Things gets from any semblance of a recognizable reality the less there is to care about any of the characters and what will happen to them if they ever arrive at their destination — if they even have one. The film is sorely lacking the kind of high-concept twist that gives Kaufman’s other movies their attention-grabbing hooks. There’s no magical technology or mysterious portal driving the action (or inaction, in this case). It’s just a lot of pontificating about things by people who wind up being more like symbols than flesh and blood humans.

Kaufman made this movie for Netflix, which might have been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, he got to direct the sort of deeply peculiar, and downright off-putting movie that most major studios would never touch in 2020, even when it comes from the auspices of a critically-acclaimed filmmaker. On the other hand, even without a global pandemic most people would have encountered this movie on a television, computer, or phone — a less-than-optimal setting for an experience that was clearly calibrated for theaters right from the tiniest opening credits I have ever seen in my entire life. Thanks to the pandemic, no one will see this movie in a theater. At home, a lot of people faced with the choice of enduring squirm-inducing recreations of miserable conversations will just turn the movie off and try something else.

Hardcore Kaufman heads will get the most out of I’m Thinking of Ending Things — although I’d rate myself as a significant admirer of his work, and this left me colder than anything he’s done since Human Nature. The film’s surreal finale explains some of the story’s questions and while leaving others to ponder. Viewers who can get on Kaufman’s melancholy wavelength might be willing to return to this bizarre world to sew together more loose ends. Personally, I felt like I would absolutely appreciate the film more if I watched it a second time, and could not fathom having the patience to sit through it again any time soon.

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