Even the most entertaining of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s cinematic mind-blowers — “Being John Malkovich” (1999), for example, or “Adaptation” (2002) — have trafficked in the heavy stuff. Loneliness. Insecurity. The inability to connect. The desire to forget. As he has moved further into his career and started directing his own movies, the existential weight has deepened and acquired cosmic overtones. “Synecdoche, New York” (2008) cast Philip Seymour Hoffman as a playwright who turns his entire lifespan into art (and vice versa). Kaufman’s new film, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” starts as a date movie before leading the audience down a hall of mirrors to a place of unyielding sadness and compassion.
Fun? Not much. Fascinating? To those adventurous enough to get in the car with Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his new girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) as they drive through a blizzard to visit his parents, perhaps. The movie is based on Iain Reid’s 2016 novel — after “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2002) and “Adaptation” (sort of), it’s the third of Kaufman’s films to come from outside his own febrile brain — and it turns increasingly surreal as it goes, as if David Lynch were whispering advice in the director’s ear. For one thing, we’re never entirely sure what the girlfriend’s name is — Lucy? Louise? — even if the ruminations we hear on the soundtrack are hers. She’s thinking of ending things, she says, and whether she means the relationship or her life hangs in the air throughout the movie.
The movie’s over two hours long and more than half of it is two people in a car — the drive there and the drive back. Yet Kaufman keeps the suspense tight through the whip of snow on windshield, the steady beat of the wipers, and a gathering disquiet. The conversations range from Wordsworth to World War II to “Oklahoma!” and beyond, and the verbosity spirals and hangs in the air like cigarette smoke. As with Kaufman’s recently published novel, “Antkind,” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” seems at times aimed at an absurdly narrow range of cinephiles — the sort of people who’d recognize the girlfriend’s dismissal of the 1974 John Cassavetes film “A Woman Under the Influence” as being lifted verbatim from Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review. (That makes two of us, at the very least.)
The visit to the parents’ isolated farmhouse only adds to the sense that the entire movie is built on quicksand — that things are not remotely what they appear. Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) is high-strung and neurotic, coddling her baby boy and criticizing him in the same breath. The father (David Thewlis, on loan from Mike Leigh’s universe) is sprightly and dense. The girlfriend, who has a tart acerbity that anchors the movie and provides a point of reference, is thrown by the little things that keep changing, like the Band-Aid on the father’s head or the parents’ age. Who’s telling this story, anyway?
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a puzzle film, in other words, and like Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” it does have a solution even if the getting there stands to leave a majority of viewers baffled, bored, or angry. (Already one reviewer for a major publication has proved to completely miss the boat on the movie’s ultimate meaning.) Kaufman and novelist Reid are playing tricks with points of view and narrative agency; the filmmaking, simple only on the surface, is remarkably supple at suggesting the shifts.
Much of the burden falls on the actors, who couldn’t be better. Buckley, the loaded weapon of “Wild Rose” (2018), is funny, sympathetic, and intense, and the actress has received the lion’s share of advance praise. But Plemons (“Breaking Bad,” “The Irishman”) has the much trickier role as the earnestly morose boyfriend and he pulls it off with unshowy skill. Jake is the needle that threads together the movie’s many parts — including those seemingly random scenes involving an aged janitor (Guy Boyd) at a rural high school — and Plemons uses his average-guy looks to almost invisibly paint a portrait of simmering despair.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is playing at the Kendall Square and is also available on Netflix, which is good because you may want to immediately start again from the beginning to catch clues you might have missed. If you’ve made it to the end, that is — the film’s heavy blanket of melancholy almost seems designed to winnow out all but the most hardy viewers. Those who last will be rewarded with a vision of sudden enchantment — the lovers magically transformed into balletic dancers (Ryan Steele and Unity Phelan) — and a disturbing and intensely sorrowful journey down the corridors of a broken mind. Like graphic artist Chris Ware (whose 2019 book “Rusty Brown” features a storyline that uncannily parallels this movie), Kaufman is a meticulous master at capturing the beauty that lies in bleakness. He’s our patron saint of desolate lives.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, based on the novel by Iain Reid. Starring Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd. At Kendall Square and streaming on Netflix. 134 minutes. R (language).