It must be exhausting being Charlie Kaufman. For two decades now, Hollywood’s most madly inspired writer turned writer-director has been offering tours of the space between his ears, no visit to the seventh-and-a-half floor or appointment with Lacuna Inc. necessary. Even when Kaufman’s movies aren’t explicitly opening wormholes into the brain, they still feel like streams of his own consciousness, breathlessly expressing every thought that’s raced through his noggin. And what a confounding house of mirrors he’s built up there—a labyrinth of high concepts, existential anxieties, and pessimistically big ideas. You know that old theory that intelligence begets unhappiness? Exhibit A might be the collected works of this great American filmmaker and thinker, whose CV is basically an MRI scan of troubled genius.
What’s troubling Kaufman this time? Nothing less than the nagging sense that the life of the mind, that reality as we perceive it, is all there is. “It’s good to remind yourself that the world’s larger than inside your own head,” Jake (Jesse Plemons) says to Lucy (Jessie Buckley) early into I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, the filmmaker’s latest maddening plunge down the rabbit hole of his boundless imagination. Is Kaufman assuring us or himself? By the end of this strange movie—possibly his most uncompromising and discombobulating, which is really saying something—we have no guarantee that the world it depicts exists outside of someone’s head. The question may just be whose?
It’s a head trip in the form of a road trip. Jake has invited Lucy, his girlfriend of just a few weeks, to come meet his parents in downstate New York, a long drive through worsening weather. The two are smart and anxious millennials; they talk in heady references, though often at instead of to each other. They seem more superficially compatible than Joel and Clementine, the once and future lovers of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but a breakup may still be imminent. Lucy is thinking of ending things, after all—something she tells us repeatedly through a running internal monologue that keeps getting stepped on by intrusions of chitchat. (One is reminded that Kaufman does voice-over more cleverly and purposefully and emphatically than almost anyone working today.) For a while, the film coasts on the squirmy, cringe-comic apprehension of a young relationship, put to a perhaps premature test by the conversational demands of a protracted car ride.
Kaufman didn’t pull these characters and plot from his own mental ether. They come instead from a novel by Iain Reid—a slim exercise in sustained unease, readable in one enthralled sitting. Not that source material has ever stopped this filmmaker from indulging his own neurotic personality or following his own runaway train of thought. This is, remember, the same screenwriter who turned a nonfiction Susan Orlean bestseller about plants into a comedic chronicle of his agonizing struggles to adapt it. There’s no such meta framework to I’m Thinking Of Ending Things. All the same, Kaufman makes the story his own, homing in on the offhand surrealism of the book and pulling on it like a loose thread, unraveling much of Reid’s mounting psychological horror in favor of something more unconventional, more intrinsically… Kaufman.
It’s when the two lovebirds pass out of the gathering snowstorm and into Jake’s childhood home that the film’s already fragile impression of reality starts to come apart at the seams. His mother and father, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, are vaguely unhinged caricatures of lonely, chipper, culturally removed American parenthood; they tilt I’m Thinking Of Ending Things into a grotesque, distended sitcom farce of social discomfort, like the Eraserhead dinner-table scene kicked into a new tragicomic register. Kaufman, an old pro at wringing laughs from life’s small humiliations, makes a feast out of this familiar gauntlet of meet-the-parents awkwardness. At the same time, he also floods the narrative with waves of cognitive dissonance and slippery, nightmare subjectivity. The basic foundational details of these characters and their relationship keep shifting under our feet like quicksand. How did they meet? What does Lucy do for a living? Wait, is Lucy even her name? Kaufman, sneakily altering visual details from frame to frame, revives the grim absurdism of his brilliantly morose directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York.
There’s a whole movie in that drafty, temporally treacherous farmhouse. But most of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things takes place in the front seat of the car; it’s primarily a two-hander, though there are enough topics of philosophical conversation to fill a book much thicker than Reid’s. Jake and Lucy trade quotes from William Wordsworth and Guy Debord and David Foster Wallace, carrying on a mutating, annotated debate that reveals the fault lines in their romance while also hinting that they may be better matched than Lucy fears. The terror of aging, a common fixation in Kaufman’s work, slithers into the discussion through pregnant pockets of silence. At one point, the two essentially reenact that galaxy-brain meme on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” More often than not, the movie is like the echo chamber of an unsettled mind, pinging from topic to topic and arguing with itself. It can be as fatiguing, in its endless pontification, as the feeling of being locked in your own head on a sleepless night, unable to shut your brain off. But Kaufman ballasts the endless chatter with flights of bizarre fancy: animated interludes, hilarious movies-within-the-movie, even a spot-on parody of a certain thematically relevant, middlebrow Oscar winner.
What grounds the film, crucially, is the performances by its homonymously named leads. Plemons, playing another of Kaufman’s brainy, possibly miserable introverts (a type you might presume the filmmaker knows inside out), hints at heartbreaking truths about Jake that the movie can’t bring itself to vocalize. But the real revelation here is Buckley, who’s remarkable in a role as tricky as the story itself. The Irish actor has made a strong impression before, as the rebellious wild child of Beast and the aspiring songbird of Wild Rose. But in I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, she seems at all times to be playing multiple versions of Lucy: not just the dry-witted one we first meet, preoccupied with doubts about the relationship she’s stumbled into, but also the version her boyfriend sees, and the one his parents want to see, and even—during the film’s most critic-baiting detour—one possessed by the ghost of Pauline Kael, challenging Jake’s feelings about a John Cassavetes classic with a pan recited verbatim. Kael wrote that Gena Rowlands “externalizes schizophrenic dissolution.” Buckley, in turn, internalizes all of Kaufman’s notions about the shifting, unknowable self—those big questions of identity he’s been asking since the enduringly ingenious Being John Malkovich thrust his mind’s eye into the public eye.
Looked at one way, the movie is a puzzle box with a solution. Reid solved it for his readers, in an ending that felt a little too rational, too paperback-thriller straightforward, after the sinister mysteries of character and behavior that lead up to it. Without reinterpreting the novel, Kaufman abstracts its revelations, productively scrambling a “twist” into something funnier, sadder, and more touching: a requiem of pure expressive irresolution, like the final minutes of An American In Paris (a film that the musical-loving Jake would surely count among his tossed-off, amusingly lengthy list of favorites). I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is guaranteed to frustrate anyone looking for even the relative dramatic accessibility of, say, Eternal Sunshine. But in capturing something akin to the life of a mind, Kaufman once again makes you grateful for the window into his own—and, maybe, that it’s not your own. Which is to say, his brain is an exciting place to visit, but who in their right mind would want to live there?