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Review: 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' a hopeless glimpse into the void

Charlie Kaufman brings existential dread to Netflix, with stars Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The fractured puzzle box reality of "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" presents questions of truth, time and emotional honesty — and few answers. 

Some will find that journey intriguing, and will follow it down the rabbit hole where still more questions await. For others, "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" will be the year's most frustrating viewing experience. 

Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons in "I'm Thinking of Ending Things."

Both are likely what writer-director Charlie Kaufman set out to achieve. He's been exploring the outer edges of the human condition for more than two decades, with varying degrees of success; "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is as emotionally raw and relatable as "Synecdoche, New York" is impenetrable.

"I'm Thinking of Ending Things" lands somewhere in the middle. It's a surreal dreamscape where time folds in on itself, identity is fluid and everyone is experiencing some level of existential crisis. But its pathways only lead to more pathways, and it eventually breaks down on the side of the road, its tail lights flashing into the void.  

Here, Kaufman's focus is a young woman (Jessie Buckley) who early on informs us, in voiceover, that she's thinking of ending things. She's been dating Jake (Jesse Plemons) for about six weeks and they're off to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at his family's farmhouse, but they're not staying long, because she's got to get home and there's a blizzard on its way. 

Blips point out glitches in the matrix, or that everything is not in its right place. Early on, Jake hears the young woman — that's how Buckley's character is identified in the credits, although in the movie she's alternately known as Lucy and Louisa — talking to herself. Jake's parents rapidly age and de-age from scene to scene. A dog appears and disappears just as quickly. Nothing, quite literally, makes any sense.

Kaufman gleefully obliterates the banality of small talk; pleasantries exchanged around the dinner table turn into a farcical play about the inanity of human interaction.

He later turns his aim on Hollywood: a mini-movie within the movie calls out a certain big-name movie director; he uses sweeping tracking shots where simple, concise shots would suffice; and a conversation about "A Woman Under the Influence" turns into Buckley's character word-for-word reciting Pauline Kael's review of the film. There are also threads about William Wordsworth, David Foster Wallace, "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "Oklahoma!" 

But to what end? The enigma of "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is its own enigma, and trying to unravel it is like entering a wormhole, or watching a dog chase its own tail. Buckley, a stunner in last year's "Wild Rose," and Plemons, always a formidable presence, are both excellent. But "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is an unsolvable riddle where the only answer is mankind's hopelessness, and we've been down this road before. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'I'm Thinking of Ending Things'

GRADE: C

Rated R: for language including some sexual references

Running time: 135 minutes

On Netflix