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‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Review: The tragedy of storytelling

Charlie Kaufman’s psychological horror film is a poignant distillation of our fractured realities.

Jake's family sits around the dinner table as his girlfriend moves to leave.
(Image: © Netflix)

Our Verdict

‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ holds nothing back as it plunges deep into the human psyche and refuses to leave the wrinkles of your brain.

For

  • 💔Horror found in the banal through masterful editing.
  • 💔Amazing performances, particularly from Jessie Buckley.
  • 💔The third act is majestic, surreal, and heartbreaking.

Against

  • 💔It might take more than one viewing to fully parse what you just watched.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things has been marketed as a horror film, but I’m not sure that tells an entirely accurate reflection of what Netflix subscribers have in store for them. Not because it doesn’t ultimately deal with some horrific subject matter – I am absolutely not invoking the old chestnut of treating horror as some sort of lower echelon of genre – but because Charlie Kaufman, true to unique, auteur form, has crafted a story that invokes so much more than what conventional genre classification easily describes. 

Dread and terror might be the most generalized of emotions that are delivered through this story, but it’s also rife with comedy, tragedy, animated vignettes, and, shockingly, its fair share of musical theater. While a lesser filmmaker might fumble such ambitions under the incongruous weight of clashing tones and jarring transitions, Kaufman has crafted a film of awe-inspiring poetic majesty, holding nothing back as it plunges deep into the human psyche and refuses to leave the wrinkles of your brain.

A young woman (Jessie Buckley) is thinking of ending things with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) after about six weeks together. He’s driving them to visit with his parents, and the pair ruminate over shared points of their college education and philosophy as a snowstorm threatens to make it difficult for them to return back home that evening. Meanwhile, for reasons not readily apparent, scenes of a high school janitor (Guy Boyd) going about his duties are crosscut into the conversation.

Mysterious janitor aside, I’m Thinking of Ending Things opens innocuously enough, though attentive viewers will start to notice strange discontinuities, like a tendency for Jake to respond to his girlfriend’s voiceover narration rather than what she’s saying out loud, or that the pair seem to have an eerily similar collection of scientific and literary points of reference that they draw from, despite studying different subjects at school. Their conversation doesn’t so much feel like dissections of mutually appreciated works as cold recitations that prove one’s knowledge.

Then things get even stranger. You aren’t sure you even know Jessie Buckley’s character’s name, and sure enough, it apparently changes every few minutes. The editing feels disoriented and frantic, an astounding feat for the cramped space of a car. Once the couple arrives at Jake’s parents’ house, everything about his mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis) feels more than a little off, not only in how they are completely socially inept but in how Jake suddenly seems like he wants anything but to be there. Continuity between shots and plot points starts to break down, and the very reality you think you’re experiencing comes into question.

It’s an extremely unsettling experience to sit through, and it only becomes more intense as the film not only toys with your expectations of how that escalation will resolve, but whether it will even escalate in the manner you expect or are innately comfortable with. Throughout this existential journey, Collette and Thewlis are easily the show-stealers, swinging moods with such vicious intensity that it’s astounding that their characters feel at all cohesive. Plemons conveys a world-weary weight on his shoulders that belies much more than his college-boy persona would lead you to expect, but it’s Buckley who deserves the most praise as a protagonist who simultaneously is trapped in a world that makes less sense with each passing moment and is constrained by social convention and a sense that she’s following an unwitting agenda of her own.

The film’s third act fully manifests into the kind genre-defying opus one expects from Charlie Kaufman, and it is a devastating ode to the fragility of memory, the pain of regret, the beauty of human connection, and the power that stories hold over our lives. I suspect that many viewers will want to rewatch the film fairly quickly, to piece together the pieces of meta narrative sprinkled throughout and to make full sense of an ending that might be a bit less definitive than expected. This even goes for readers of Iain Reid’s novel from which this is adapted, as Kaufman’s liberties with the narrative provide some interesting wrinkles worth parsing and exploring. But even after one sitting, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a raw, emotional masterwork that cuts to the core of the human condition and leaves you pondering your priorities. Make sure you have some comfort food on hand for when the credits roll. You’re going to need it.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things will stream on Netflix starting on September 4, 2020.