Published 5:18 PM EDT Sep 3, 2020
Jessie Buckley has two words for anyone watching “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”: Brace yourselves.
“Don’t go in with any expectation of anything and see what happens,” the actress says of the deeply strange and unsettling new drama (streaming Friday on Netflix). The heady film is written and directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), who adapted it from Iain Reid’s cerebral 2016 novel.
The movie opens with a pragmatic young woman (Buckley) mulling whether to break up with Jake (Jesse Plemons), her stifling and overearnest boyfriend of seven weeks. But as they drive through a snowstorm to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their rural farmhouse, you immediately get the sense something is off. The girlfriend’s name alternates from scene to scene – is it Lucy? Louisa? Amy? – as does her outfit, her job and the story of how they met.
Jake’s parents are equally confounding, growing dramatically older and younger from one moment to the next. Oh, and it’s all intercut with scenes of an unidentified school janitor just going about his day (but more on that later).
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So what’s it all about? And how should you watch it? Kaufman tells us what you need to know about his love-it-or-hate-it masterpiece that’s dividing critics, called “weirdness at its worst” by the San Francisco Chronicle and “the year’s most creative film” by the Chicago Sun-Times.
‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ isn’t a horror movie, at least not in the traditional sense
Ever since Netflix released the trippy first trailer last month, “Ending Things” has been labeled a psychological horror thriller on Twitter and by critics drawing early comparisons to “The Shining,” “Get Out,” “Hereditary” and “Midsommar.”
“I do have a bit of concern about that, because I don’t want people to be misled,” Kaufman says. “It’s less a horror movie than a meditation on a whole bunch of other human attributes. There are creepy elements, and it’s a horror movie in the sense of things that I think are horrifying: regret, isolation, aging, loneliness. But it doesn’t have jump scares and that sort of thing.”
Instead, it’s a surreal exploration of relationships
As we get to know Jake, we find that he’s an awkward, kind and unremarkable guy who’s worked hard all his life but never amounted to much. He’s learned most of what he knows about love through cheesy romantic movies, and sees his more intelligent and successful girlfriend as a prize he can show off.
“In the book she exists as a cipher, and I wanted her to have some autonomy and agency and feel the effect of the projection that Jake is constantly applying to her, which is why there’s so many shifts in who she is,” Kaufman says. “So it’s about romantic projection and fantasies, and what that does to a relationship when people ultimately aren’t what you want or imagine them to be.”
Adds Buckley: “Lots of people will relate to being in that situation of trying to find themselves in a relationship, but also losing yourself in relationships and how complex that is.”
The story has parallels to ‘Oklahoma!’
In some ways, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is an existential spin on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic “Oklahoma!” but told from the perspective of lonely, scorned farmhand Jud Fry, who pines for Laurey’s affection.
The show is heavily referenced in the film: The elderly custodian, whose connection to Jake becomes clearer as the film goes on, watches high-school students rehearse a production of “Oklahoma!” in an early scene. Key characters discuss and sing songs from the musical, and the show’s famous “Dream Ballet” is stunningly re-created with a chilling twist.
“Oklahoma!” isn’t referenced in the book, but Kaufman added it because the musical has “similar themes to what we’re exploring in the movie, specifically as they relate to Jud.”
You’ll want to watch it more than once
We’ve now watched “Ending Things” three times (so far), discovering new details each viewing that may help unlock its meaning. There’s lots of room for interpretation, and being on Netflix, Kaufman welcomes viewers who choose to pause the film and obsessively analyze visuals and dialogue.
“I like writing and making movies where looking at it a second or third time, you start to see new things,” Kaufman says. “The actual kind of stopping and rewinding didn’t really occur to me while I was making it, but people should watch it how they want.”
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