Hurtling toward death,” as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden puts it in Synecdoche New York, isn’t new territory for Charlie Kaufman; Kaufman’s characters usually accept the inevitability of death, while unable to reconcile with the passage of time. Time seems to shrink the older we get. Days start to feel like minutes, long car rides feel instantaneous, and we suddenly notice new wrinkles on our parents’ faces. Time is only made discernible through the tactile process of decay. Thus, in the early moments of I’m Thinking of Ending Things when Jessie Buckley’s Lucy notes an odd sighting of a brand new swing set outside of a decaying house, it’s clear that time in this universe exists in a state of limbo. With a 4:3 aspect ratio and chilly digital cameras, Director of Photography Lukasz Zal makes each claustrophobic location feel like a liminal space between reality and dream.
Kaufman structures I’m Thinking of Ending Things like a slowly intensifying existential crisis, in that expanded dialogue sequences run on far past their natural conclusions, flowing well beyond naturalism and into the uncanny. Through Jessie Buckley’s character, we experience a whirlwind of alienation amidst an oppressive, perpetually worsening blizzard. Miscommunications cascade into identity crises that cascade into a loss of any sense of time and space; the awkward act of “meeting the parents” serves as the foundation for a temporal nightmare in which a thousand lives are lived and not lived in a single blown up moment. The core cast, which consists of Jesse Buckley, Jesse Plemmons, Toni Collette, and David Thewlis, do breathlessly excellent work at externalizing the concept that we are, at all times, the sum of our five closest friends.
Despite being Kaufman’s smallest scale film to date, it feels like his most sprawlingly unhinged. Netflix gave Kaufman creative freedom, and in doing so, the film often feels more focused on Kaufman’s ethos than it is on the characters’ pathos. Feeling alien to this film is a byproduct of intentional creative choices. It’s comforting knowing its grand finale was made with the utmost sincerity despite not all of Kaufman’s creative options fully resonating with me on-screen. Most importantly, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is precisely the film he’d set out to make – a wholly unique experience so far removed from studio conventions that it feels like it could only possibly exist during these purgatory-esque times. Whether or not the film will resonate with you, it’s worth supporting a fully realized artistic vision, which is few and far between in the streaming world.