'I'm Thinking Of Ending Things' Review: Charlie Kaufman's Long, Strange Trip Is A Surreal Masterwork

"I'm thinking of ending things." So thinks a young woman (Jessie Buckley) as she sets off for a road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet Jake's parents. The young couple has been dating for about six weeks, and there's a spark between them – albeit an awkward one. But as the car plods on, the snow drifts down, and the wiper blades hypnotically cut back and forth, the young woman can't shake that thought, lodged in her brain like song lyrics, or a parasite. "I'm thinking of ending things." Just what is she thinking of ending? The relationship with Jake? Or something else? And why is Jake suddenly acting so strange?

Adapted from Iain Reid's novel, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a road trip movie, Charlie Kaufman style. Kaufman writes and directs the film, taking Reid's dreamy, philosophical thriller and working it into something surreal and singular. A work unlike anything else you're bound to see this year. It's haunting and hilarious. Disturbing and captivating. It hypnotizes you like a cobra than goes in for a kiss instead of a bite.

The young woman (she's unnamed in Reid's book and listed as Young Woman in press materials, although we're told on more than one occasion that her name is Lucy) is our guide, and Buckley's voice – flat yet yearning – accompanies us on our journey. Her poetic, strange narration takes us into her head, and beyond. Who is she? She's many things. She's Jake's ideal woman. She's the type of girl you want to bring home to mom and dad. She's a painter, she's a poet, she's studying quantum physics. She contains multitudes. And yet...she remains elusive. Unknowable. Unquantifiable. And again and again, she tells us: "I'm thinking of ending things."

Once the pair arrive at Jake's parents' farmhouse, things go from weird to downright bizarre. Jake's mother is played by Toni Collette with the type of stunning, often hilarious mania we've come to expect from the actress. Jake's father is played by David Thewlis as a gruff, no-nonsense man who simultaneously seems spacey and aloof. The married couple is immediately discomforting, with the mother laughing too long and too hard at things that aren't funny, and the father – with a large bandage plastered on his head – moving about as if he's in a daze.

But the young woman (or Lucy, if you want to call her that) is accommodating. She wants to make a good impression. She wants to be polite. She wants to pretend everything is normal, even though the house they're in seems pulled out of another century. Even though there's something scary in the basement. Even though the family dog looks like it's constantly soaking wet and can't stop shaking the water out from its coat. And through it all, Kaufman keeps cutting back to a lonely high school janitor (Guy Boyd).

How does it all add up? Does it all add up? Through Kaufman's lens, I'm Thinking of Ending Things unfolds not like a dream but like the shadow of a dream. Like something that infiltrated your brain when your guard was down and left you dazed and disoriented when you regained your senses. You grasp about in the darkness, wondering if it was all imaginary, or if it really happened. You wonder where you are. It's a film that will leave you haunted and bemused. Scenes that are designed to have you guffawing collide with scenes where you become unmoored; adrift. You become an unmonitored, forgotten satellite spinning out into space.

Lukasz Zal's cinematography – with the film shot in Academy Aperture aspect ratio – is both warm and cold at the same time. It's painterly, with the landscape the characters travel across looking like an American Regionalist painting – it's no coincidence that Andrew Wyeth gets mentioned at one point. The film is not shy about its inspirations, about drawing on other sources as if this were a curious mixed media project. Pauline Kael reviews get name-dropped. Wordsworth inspires a groan-worthy pun. The young woman recites a gorgeous poem she wrote called "Bone Dog" (actually an unpublished poem written by poet Eva H.D., a friend of Kaufman). "Coming home is terribly lonely," she declaims. "So that you think of the oppressive barometric pressure back where you have just come from with fondness – because everything's worse once you're home."

If I'm giving you the impression that I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a fussy, pretentious bit of clap-trap, it's not. It's a beautiful, strange terrarium of a film, inviting us to gaze through the glass and wonder what's going on underneath. Just as funny and creepy as it needs to be, the film is Kaufman at the top of his game, firing on all cylinders. A master of his own unique, unclassifiable craft. The cast here brings it all to life, with Plemons' clumsy, awkward Jake both unlikable and lovable, and Collette and Thewlis as parents who seem to age vast years in the span of one night, both sinking their teeth into their uncanny roles. But it's Buckley, front and center for nearly every scene, that we remain fixated on. "I'm thinking of ending things," she tells us. And in telling us, she invites us to find out just what she means.

/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10