Road trips “remind you that the world is bigger than the inside of your own head,” observes a young woman played by Jessie Buckley in Charlie Kaufman’s elegiac thriller “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” on Netflix. Her statement is more or less in opposition to Kaufman’s entire body of work, which is dedicated to spelunking through the darkest recesses of the inside of his characters’ heads, so it should immediately be a little suspicious.
This untrustworthy quality is worsened by her character’s boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), who seems to know what she’s thinking from moment to moment on their drive to meet his parents for dinner — a first for her.
Then there are the incongruities and apparently intentional continuity errors: Sometimes she’s wearing a sweater; in the next shot, the sweater is gone. There’s an old man driving a truck in a series of interstitial scenes who doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either of them — except that, perhaps, he’s also in the house where Jake’s mom (Toni Collette) and dad (David Thewlis) are painfully, awkwardly trying to entertain the young couple.
It makes you wonder: Is this whole thing in her head?
No, it isn’t, and that’s as much as I’m willing to spoil this movie, which is one of the most beautiful meditations on time and memory I’ve seen committed to film.
Kaufman tricks us into thinking we’re watching a horror movie for the first two-thirds of his film — which is also how “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is marketed, how it’s shot in its first half and how its surreal elements play on our sense of dramatic tension on a first viewing. It’s a completely different film the second time around, though: funnier, sadder and a deeper expression of the lives of characters we barely know on the first viewing.
It’s not really watched until it’s watched twice, and even if you’ve read the Iain Reid novel on which it’s based, there are surprises in store for you. Kaufman hasn’t departed from the spirit of the well-liked book, but he has added his own embellishments, including a dance sequence cribbed from Agnes de Mille’s dream ballet sequence in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” — a musical number and other surreal touches that can only be described as part of the writer-director’s own odd oeuvre.
The sense that something is rotten and wrong gets worse with each passing minute, and its fears are both typical horror flick fare — there’s a door with mysterious scratches on it leading to a dark basement — and freakily novel.
Then there is the question of why this couple is together. She claims to have a deep attraction to him, but Plemons plays Jake as anything but attractive — he’s a mumbling, angry loner who’s forever correcting his girlfriend and making jokes that are half at her expense. Their chemistry is entirely one-sided, and the more effusive and winning Buckley is, the weirder their relationship becomes to viewers.
I’ll cop to liking this movie better than its source material: Reid’s focus is regret and longing, two things I have personally had enough of from my art and literature at this peculiarly difficult moment. Kaufman, however, is a better existentialist than the writer he adapts.
“Anything an environment makes you feel is about you, not the environment, right?” Buckley’s character, a painter (and then apparently a physicist or a poet or a gerontologist) explains to Jake’s uncultured parents in an exchange invented for the film. “None of the feeling is inherent to the place.” That explains a bit what attracted Kaufman to the material: the notion that our interior lives are no less real than the world around us; indeed, that they may be more real.
I can’t imagine Kaufman would like hearing this, but his movie is a good double bill with the summer’s other great entertainment about how we perceive time, Christopher Nolan’s IMAX extravaganza, “Tenet.” Both explore the same problems of fate and lost opportunities, but where Nolan externalizes all our pettiest concerns and inflates them into gigantic time-traveling set pieces. Kaufman reduces them, turns them sideways and makes them strange in a far more intimate way.
As it becomes harder and less profitable to comment on current events in a world changing so quickly that “current events” themselves are practically a thing of the past, our most interesting filmmakers are looking inward. The insides of things are Kaufman’s home turf, and though nobody could call “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” upbeat, it’s oddly comforting when the movie finally reveals itself.
Ultimately, Kaufman is asking the biggest questions imaginable: What happens when we die? What do we take with us, and why did our lives turn out the way they did? Have we wasted our time on Earth? How could we know if we had? It’s hard to sing and dance about these topics, but that’s what we get from “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” And perhaps it encourages us to sing and dance about them, too, as we think of things that are ending.