“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a Halloween treat unlike any other

I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Guy Boyd as Janitor in I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

On Sept. 4, the latest film from Charlie Kaufman arrived on Netflix — an adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” Kaufman is the acclaimed creator of such classics as “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Despite being quite favorable among critics and audiences alike, many viewers across the board were put off by the film’s tone and general occurrences, especially in the latter half of its narrative. While I share several of their grievances, I find the film’s editing and cinematography exemplary, and believe Kaufman’s adapted screenplay is worthy of any accolade.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” follows a young couple — student physicist Jake and his often daydreaming, unnamed girlfriend — en route to the remote homestead of Jake’s parents. It’s snowing outside as a vaguely threatening blizzard rolls in and the female protagonist, whom I’ll call the young woman, expresses concern for the mounting snowfall, but Jake reassures her that if push comes to shove, he’s got chains in the trunk.

The film’s first 20 minutes or so follow these two in the throes of an often awkward conversation stuffed with acutely meandering dialogue. They jump from topic to topic, rifling through the mundane and profound, sharing laughs and prolonged silences. Intercutting this dialogue is the young woman’s sobering narration, an abundance of voice over that serves her introvertedness, consistently leading the viewer down dreamy, somber paths before being pulled back to earth by Jake’s fruitless conversation starters. Much of her inner monologue is riddled with self-conflict and self-doubt as she questions her relationship with Jake, their journey to his parents’ farm and, most importantly, her own perceived worth. She opens the film with the morose statement, “I’m thinking of ending things,” and treats the phrase like a mantra, repeating it a number of times throughout.

Though many viewers may find this extended dialogue a tad boring, I find it both simple in its mechanics and complex in its presentation, a kind of writerly beauty surfacing in that paradox. At this point in Kaufman’s narrative, I was fully on board. Once the couple arrived at the parents’ farm, however, I grew utterly stunned at how ruthlessly tense the film became.

From the moment the couple gets out of the car, you can tell that something, or rather, several things, are amiss in some way. The barn door is ajar, beyond which lies a shadowy interior, abandoned and decrepit, a shutter swings open despite the lack of a driving wind and Jake’s mother watches her son and the young woman from an upstairs window, waving at them incessantly.

Moving into the house, Jake’s parents treat the couple to dinner. This scene begins the film’s torturous thematic build of emotional tension and general unease. The mother tries desperately to seem welcoming — cracking jokes, poking fun at Jake with hints of past embarrassments and generally composing herself in a very animated way. The father, a man of soft tones and a most peculiar accent, expresses interest in the young woman’s knack for painting, but becomes hopelessly confused at her quite simple explanations of approach and technique.

While these traits are not strictly uncanny in and of themselves, their juxtaposition with some starkly contrasting moments certainly unease the viewer. The mother’s allusions to Jake’s childhood are met with table-slamming outbursts from Jake and at the drop of a hat, her welcoming gestures are swapped out for ominous sentiments and cold stares. In a more visceral fashion, the young woman’s attempts to explain her art to the tone-deaf father jarringly cuts to a shot of the man’s exposed toenail, ripped off at the cuticle. The protagonist herself cannot escape the weirdness and by dinner’s end has told several contradicting stories of how she and Jake met without realizing it.

To avoid spoilers I cannot delve too deeply into further moments, but the uncanniness on display at dinner can serve as a kind of template for the overall tone of the film’s final two-thirds. Kaufman provides a truly jarring experience because of both his directorial capability and distinctive prowess behind the camera. The way scenes are shot and edited contributes to this sensation, often forcibly cutting from shot to shot. For instance, every time the family dog, Jimmy, is mentioned, he appears in the shot immediately following, before completely vanishing from a scene’s context. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is filled with many such oddities and the result is a constant intensity that builds moment to moment.

This design is not without its flaws, however. Despite gorgeous cinematography and masterful dialogue, the film’s numerous strange events build in such a way that they, regardless of their impact, overwhelm the viewer. What results by the time the credits roll is utter chaos akin only to a descent into madness. Perhaps this mad spiral is by design, as it will easily take another viewing or two before the pieces fall concretely into place.

Filming techniques aside, what works best in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is the strength of its small cast. Jesse Plemons as Jake is every bit as awkward as the character demands, and Toni Collette as his mother echoes her acting chops from Ari Aster’s 2018 horror hit, “Hereditary.” Most notable, though, is Jessie Buckley, who effortlessly impresses as the young woman, at times witty and charmingly awkward, while at others strong and boldly resolute. Hers is some of the best acting I’ve seen in recent memory and I would be appalled if the Academy turns a blind eye when award season arrives.

By the close of its two-hour-plus runtime, Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” left me exhausted and genuinely shaken. Though certain storytelling decisions begin to collapse by the film’s halfway point — a narrative steeped in layered symbolism offering little relief — there’s no doubt that Kaufman has crafted an unconventional thriller marked with shades of horror.

The intensity introduced upon the characters’ arrival to the farm never lets up, suggestive of a rising temperature that doesn’t quite reach boiling point. Impeccable actors opposite the impressive script make for tirelessly captivating scenes — though I acknowledge that lengthy dialogues and inner monologues are not everyone’s proverbial cup of tea. In all, I recommend “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” especially for those whose Halloween movie night seeks psychological torture over mindless gorefest.