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"I'm Thinking of Ending Things" Review

Certain screenwriters names in film credits give a strong hint of what kind of movie experience you're in for. Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin are synonymous with hyper-literate characters (who may or may not all sound the same) and wildly verbose, yet quotable, dialog (e.g. "Do you know what they call the Quarter Pounder in Europe?" "If you guys were the inventors of would've invented Facebook.") But when it comes to Charlie Kaufman - writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - the general consensus is "weird." 

So that's how we went into I'm Thinking of Ending Things, his third film as a writer-director,  expecting a long (running time: 2h 15m) slog of oddness and it certainly does take a leisurely stroll to nowhere in the process.

The film opens with a Young Woman (Jessie Buckley; and her character is literally credited that way) waiting on a cold winter's day for her boyfriend Jake (Jessie Plemons), whom she has been dating for six (or seven) weeks, to pick her up for a road trip to meet his parents for the first time. During the exceedingly long drive there, which almost feels like real-time, there is a building sense of tension underscored by her voiceover internal monologue repeatedly saying the movie's title. 

When they arrive, the parents aren't immediately evident, so he takes her on a tour of the farm's barn where the sheep stay and he tells a gruesome story about what happened to the pigs. Returning to the house, she meets his odd parents played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, and after a half-hour something finally happened to pique my interest. 

On the drive out Jake mentioned that his mother hadn't been feeling well and there probably wouldn't be a big spread for dinner, but when they adjourn to the dining room it is laden with a feast suitable for  multiples of the four present. I had been lulled into a light stupor by the tedium and actually backed the movie up to check what had happened; in the previous shots the dining room was clearly empty and dimly lit, but suddenly there was warm light and all the food.

As the meal proceeds, other anomalies present themselves: Her career seems to have changed from what they discussed in the car; she is getting a stream of text messages with someone with her same name, except her name seems to have changed; and as things move along sharp-eyed viewers will begin to notice some subtle changes to the parents appearances which eventually become so jarring that the WTF?!? alarms start sounding constantly. 

Eventually Jake and Young Woman head for home as she has work in the morning and as the blizzard intensifies things become even more surreal to the extent that in one moment an actress seen in a weird (there's that word again) scene from a rom-com shown replaces Buckley as the Young Woman. Whut?!?! The weirdness compounds itself until they end up at his old high school for the express purpose of throwing away milk shakes they'd bought (another weird scenario) and an ending where the vaguely surreal vibe of the movie manifests into full-blown crazy pantsness.

Throughout the movie we're given baffling cutaways to an old janitor as he goes through his workday and his significance is hinted at throughout, but it's not until the end when his significance is explained (somewhat) and if you were wondering if all this oddness was going to amount to anything, the answer is decidedly "not really." 

I suspected that this trip was going to end up in a disappointing dead end and it did. It's frustrating to have to immediately look up explainer articles after finishing a movie to have opaque narratives illuminated, especially when a movie made large changes to the source's narrative as Kaufman did to Iain Reid's novel. While film snobs like to sniff about lowbrow plebes not "getting it" the fact remains that if you can't tell a movie story without reading the book first or having someone who did explain it after the fact, it's a failure of the filmmaker. That it all amounts to almost nothing of any relevance that a viewer can relate to makes the time wasted even more acute.

The performances are all adequate to the task with Buckley doing the most heavy lifting which is ironic considering where it's going. Once you get hip to what Kaufman is doing with the breadcrumb drops, it strings you along, teasing something coming until it doesn't, ultimately devolving into a self-satisfied wank at the expense of the audience. (There are elements of David Lynch's oddness at play, but the quality it shares the most is how Twin Peaks: The Event Series continuation also ended in audience time-wastage.)

While it's presented in Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos audio (on properly equipped sets), there's little to showcase the formats potential benefits given its mostly dark and gray palette and dialog-driven audio. 

Perhaps if the movie had been trimmed down to a shorter running time (say, 90 mins) befitting its slight narrative, I'm Thinking of Ending Things may've merited the jaunt, but as it stands it's best to not even begin things.

Score: 4/10. Skip it. 


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