The idea of faithful adaptations is overrated. Any writer who turns a book into a screenplay is entitled to put a stamp of individuality on it, and Charlie Kaufman—whose script for the 2002 film Adaptation turned a nonfiction book about orchid obsession into a paean to his own blocked creativity—avails himself of the privilege more freely than most.
To that end, Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things—which he wrote and directed—is less an adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel of the same name than it is another invitation into Kaufman’s own brain. That will make some people very happy: Kaufman’s brain is an adequately not-uninteresting place, like the apartment of a reclusive eccentric that’s packed to the gills with unfinished symphonies, half-painted puppets, a wide selection of rusty frying pans, two dozen uncaged hamsters each with its own exercise wheel and 20,000 books. Welcome! Sorry for the mess! I’ll try to make a place for you to sit!
You can never have too many books. But how many hamster wheels is too many? Kaufman’s reading of I’m Thinking of Ending Things may provide a rough answer. Reid’s novel is slim and tense, a low-commitment dose of mental-illness horror. Its efficiency, at least, is gratifying; you can almost read it in less time than it takes to watch the movie. Kaufman has poked many holes in its surface, the better to fill it with extra stuff, like you’d pierce the skin of an uncooked chicken to add pats of butter. But the result isn’t extra tenderness, just more lumpy baggage. For every moment of raw, affecting insight there are zillions of milliseconds of Kaufman’s proving what a tortured smartie he is. I’m Thinking of Ending Things must have been arduous to make, and it’s excruciatingly tedious to watch.
Which isn’t to say the lead actors don’t give their all, even when Kaufman hasn’t made it clear what we’re supposed to make of any of it. Jessie Buckley, the Irish actor who was so captivating in 2018’s Wild Rose, plays a character known as the Young Woman, who’s having doubts about a guy she’s been seeing for about six months. The guy is Jake (Jesse Plemons), and he’s invited the Young Woman to meet his parents, who live somewhere out in the country. He picks her up in his car just as a snowstorm is threatening. Right at the beginning, in a statement we don’t yet know how to parse, she lets us know that she’s “thinking of ending things.” Kaufman also signals early on that none of this should be accepted as realism; the story is an examination of psychological see-sawing, maybe even a kind of disintegration. The Young Woman thinks Jake can hear her thoughts—and maybe he can. She also keeps receiving strange calls on her cellphone, from her own number. A male voice offers an imploring riddle: “Now is the time for the answer, just one question, one question to answer.”
Who is this Young Woman, what are those phone calls about, and what does she want from Jake? What does Jake want from her? The drive to the parental homestead is stacked with prickly arguments, occasionally simpatico repartee and numerous awkward silences. Jake is seemingly attentive to this woman; he takes an interest in her work, or at least convincingly pretends to. But does he really see her? The Young Woman is not so sure. Things get weirder once they arrive. There are some dead sheep in the barn—Jake comes from a farm family—and he tells a story of how the resident pigs also met a bad end. “Life isn’t always pretty on a farm,” he tells the Young Woman, with ominous solemnity.
That point gets another bang from the figurative hammer when we meet Mother and Father (played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, who strive to bring some subtlety to what are garishly unsubtle characters). Their relationship with their child is clearly strained. They seem to be closer to one another than they are to him, and Mother stresses, repeatedly, how Jake isn’t really that smart, but deserves credit because he’s worked awfully hard. As the Young Woman suffers through the evening—she needs to get back for work the next day, despite the intensifying snowstorm outside—she has visions (or are they reality?) of what will happen as Jake’s parents age, and how he’ll care for them. This section of the movie radiates some hypnotic warmth, a respite from film’s tight, cursive loops of angst.
Through it all, Jake and the Young Woman talk around and at each other, but rarely to each other. Their inability to merge, even momentarily, may be a clue to the ending—if you can figure out what on Earth the ending is. Some of the story’s details are straight from the book: A creepy school janitor, a nervous young woman who works at the local Dairy Queen-style ice-cream joint. Others are pure Kaufman-esque embroidery, and they dilute the potential power of the movie’s conclusion: there’s a version of the dream ballet from Oklahoma, and an elaborate fantasy sequence involving a Nobel prize acceptance speech. (Prizes and honors seem to be one of Kaufman’s obsessions: In his 2008 Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s jittery theater director receives a MacArthur grant.)
Like all of the films Kaufman has written or directed, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is unreal and hyperreal at the same time. As the Young Woman, Buckley does all that the movie asks of her, maybe more—she’s bracingly sympathetic in a story that treats her largely as a vehicle for moving ideas around. The relationship between Jake and the Young Woman—whether it’s deepening or falling apart—is beside the point here. It’s unclear whom we’re supposed to sympathize with, or even if our sympathies are supposed to shift from one character to another. That makes the ending less a jolt than a muddled murmur.
But these two sure do talk, a lot. They talk about William Wordsworth and David Foster Wallace, about Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, about viruses and insects that blow themselves up for the good of the colony. At one point, the Young Woman launches into a precise and damning critique of Gena Rowlands’ performance in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence; a real-yet-not-real lit cigarette appears in her hand, and she waves it around for emphasis. Jake is taken aback. He disagrees, but she’s articulated her argument so well that can’t fight back—she’s emasculated him.
The Young Woman’s words spin out not as off-the-cuff observations but as crisp, written sentences. As it turns out, they’re lifted directly from Pauline Kael’s 1974 New Yorker review of the film, Kaufman drops this little bonbon seemingly as a kind of test, though he hints at it earlier in the movie when we see a copy of Kael’s essay collection For Keeps on Jake’s shelf. (The essay is also fully acknowledged in the credits.) Who, out there, still reads Kael? Who will get his tricky little joke, and if you do, what do you win? Kaufman doesn’t care how smart you are, as long as you know how smart he is.
Yet as much as I’ve disliked, or only partially liked, almost all of Kaufman’s movies, I can never fully dismiss him. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is so emotionally laborious, I came away thinking I’d watched six hours’ worth of movie, instead of one running just a little over two.
But Kaufman isn’t totally wrong: Feeling anything is work. It’s not-feeling that lets you off the hook. At the same time, how much self-pity can we tolerate in even the most personal of filmmakers? With every movie, including this one, Kaufman seems to be inviting us into his psyche just so he can ask, “You see how hard it is to be me?” We can witness and marvel—or not—but we’re really not of much use at all. We can’t think our way off of his whirring wheel of anxiety any better than he can.