Stranger Things

Charlie Fox on Charlie Kaufman’s I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

Charlie Kaufman, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, 2020, UHD video, color, sound, 134 minutes. The Young Woman, Jake, Mother, and Father (Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, and David Thewlis).

I REMEMBER READING, probably on an IMDb trivia page, a quote about the smash-hit romantic comedy Meet the Parents (2000) from its director, Jay Roach: “I saw [the film] as an anxiety dream.” This is probably not how Ben Stiller’s feud with grouchy paterfamilias Robert De Niro is recalled in the popular imagination, any jitters smothered by fond memories of jokes about Puff the Magic Dragon, the name Gaylord, and the immortal eeriness of Owen Wilson in a wooly sweater. But revisit the movie with anxiety on the brain and it unfolds as a Kafkaesque hellscape of doomed interactions and metastatic errors, even before the yard is flooded with shit.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the new movie directed by Charlie Kaufman and adapted by him from Iain Reid’s best-selling mystery novel, is Meet the Parents with that anxiety-dream premise dragged out to the snowbound wilderness of incomprehensible nightmare. The Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving out to meet his folks even though she’s only known him (maybe?) six weeks and she’s not wildly in love with the cerebral sadboi. His mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis) are extremely unnerving all the time, but especially when they age from youthful to cadaverous as they step from one room to the next. They dwell in a haunted house where time is prone to wicked flux. Snow falls indoors; staircases never end. Freaky narrative bifurcations, dementia, purgatorial car rides where the participants stop “being themselves” and instead puke up tracts about A Woman Under the Influence (1974) or the effects of rabies on the dorsal root ganglion: Please, make yourself at home.

If this isn’t Meet the Parents, it could be a 2020 redux of Eraserhead (1977), another rom-com turned putrid, complete with its own mortifying “what do they want from me?” dinner with the in-laws. But even Eraserhead doesn’t kill itself toward the end to respawn as a swoony ballet, the actors switched for dancers nimble as cartoon elves in a representation of what the two leads could be, if only they were happy. I’m Thinking of Ending Things has multiple personalities. It’s a Charlie Kaufman movie: a diabolical Rubik’s Cube of illusions, allusions, non sequiturs, and romantic anguish. It’s a bad trip; it really hurts.

Charlie Kaufman, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, 2020, UHD video, color, sound, 134 minutes. Father and The Young Woman (Jesse Plemons and David Thewlis).

All the performances are killer. Thewlis is bone-chilling as a classic sitcom dad left to fester in the attic, Collette scarily amazing as a mother who radiates the threat of something unhinged even when she’s trying to be “nice” or grinning like a jack-o’-lantern. Things between the visiting couple are frosty, awkward, and then plain bleak. The basic unit of communication at the dinner table is “Huh?” followed by a puzzled growl and/or burst of laughter. Extra drafts of the uncanny drift into the house from the real world. Being trapped in confined space with an inexplicable disease in the air seems . . . familiar.

Are we feeling Get Out vibes? In the outline, but this psychodrama offers no cold-sweat revelation, only a vortex of WTF conundrums. The Young Woman’s identity is unstable. Is she Lucy the poet or Louisa the quantum physicist? How long has she been here? Is her boyfriend actually a total stranger? (Familiar territory for anybody who’s felt their relationship die in their arms.) She’s having a textbook “once in a lifetime” freak-out, one where the only constant is being lost in the funhouse with somebody she doesn’t understand at all. “Same as it ever was,” forevermore.

But this condition of not knowing what the hell is going on has always been the case in the Kaufman dimension. His movies were “immersive” before the term became a ubiquitous marketing schtick, chamber dramas where the chamber in question is the brain itself. Phantasmagorical renderings of the mind’s interior as a physical space aren’t as “Whoa…” in mainstream cinema as they were back when Being John Malkovich debuted in 1999—the same year people were trying to comprehend the rules of The Matrix. Now there’s Pixar’s Inside Out (2015)—Kaufman-for-kids (directed by Pete Docter)—in which the kingdom of a child’s psyche is operated by cute embodiments of her feelings; Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), which is spooky and sublime; and Inception (2010), which is neither.

Charlie Kaufman, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, 2020, UHD video, color, sound, 134 minutes. The Young Woman, Tulsey Town Employee #2, and Tulsey Town Employee #3 (Jesse Plemons, Abby Quinn, and Hadley Robinson).

If Kaufman were Christopher Nolan, his characters would provide pseudoscientific explanations of all this stuff, gobbets of exposition flowing from nerds’ mouths like bong smoke at the Gathering of the Juggalos. But Kaufman keeps things shrouded in mystery to the point where it feels like you, too, might be succumbing to the effects of some malignant brain injury. Confusion begets confusion. No matter how trippy it all seems, this is our old friend Existential Horror (decay, solipsism, the hideous intractability of time) denuded of supernatural context, which has always been Kaufman’s thing. He renders the nightmare of being literally trapped inside your own head (“Malkovich? Malkovich.”), haunted by memory (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2003]) or consumed by an invented world (Synecdoche, New York [2008]). I’m Thinking of Ending Things exists in the transdimensional realm of psychosis, prone to disintegration and warped reassembly, the metaphysics fatally deranged. David Cronenberg’s Spider (2002) and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) would be its brothers, and then probably plan its murder. “Lonely Room” from Oklahoma! will never be the same again. Here, there is no reality beyond what the mind invents, misremembers, or fears; other people’s minds are alien planets.

Time out of joint has been one of Kaufman’s preoccupations since an episode he wrote for Saturday Night Live alumnus Chris Elliott’s show Get a Life in 1992. A deadpan parody of a traditional sitcom, Get a Life is so odd that the laugh track comes off a conceptual trick employed to intensify its weirdness. In Kaufman’s episode, “1977–2000,” Elliott crashes through time after ingesting a smoothie containing fragments of Stonehenge, lands in the ’70s, and ends up as a pair of flaming Nikes in his garage. Bewildered individuals are at the mercy of chaotic, irrational, and insanely complex forces, the terror of trying and failing to relate to each other: Yup, we’ve been here all along, except things are way funnier now and more distressing. I shouldn’t tell you about the last scene, but I think it’s about death. Remember that wintry poem about “the nothing that’s not there / And the nothing that is?” I mean, what other kind of ending is there?

I’m Thinking of Ending Things streams on Netflix beginning September 4.