Technically speaking, I'm Thinking of Ending Things isn't the first time Charlie Kaufman has taken someone else's source material and turned it into a movie. Then again, it seems impossible for Kaufman not to make anything he writes completely and distinctly his own.
For Adaptation., screenwriter Kaufman's 2002 follow-up collaboration with Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, Kaufman was tasked with adapting Susan Orlean's non-fiction best-seller The Orchid Thief—and instead ended up crafting a singularly self-aware narrative about what people demand from a movie in order to consider it conventionally satisfying. Since Kaufman seems constitutionally incapable of making that kind of movie, Iain Reid's twisty psychological thriller I'm Thinking of Ending Things would seem like an ideal tale for him to tell. Yet even when starting with something that's already more than a little prone to mind-fuckery, Kaufman has to take it somewhere that winds through his particular thematic interests, and leaves you to put plenty of pieces together.
The set-up feels simple enough initially: An unnamed young woman (Jessie Buckley) is taking a car trip with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to meet his parents on their remote farm, even as she's realizing "I'm thinking of ending things." They wind through a variety of subjects before arriving at their destination, and sure, maybe Mom (Toni Collette) and Dad (David Thewlis) are a little ... off. And maybe it's kind of impossible to nail down whether our heroine is an artist or a student—and if she a student, what exactly she's studying. And maybe people seem to be getting older or younger over a matter of minutes in a rather extreme manner.
Anyone familiar with Charlie Kaufman's oeuvre is going to recognize some of his favorite thematic playgrounds. The nature of identity feels slippery, in much the same way that it was in Being John Malkovich. An unreliable sense of the passage of time pervades the narrative, as it did in Synecdoche, New York. And there's a mournful recognition of people mired in unhappiness created by their inability to deal with the reality of other people, which elevated both Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Anomalisa.
Yet I'm Thinking of Ending Things also takes his common subject matter of obsessive artistic creation into different territory by playing around with how the way we consume art shapes our view of the world. There's an odd little interlude—albeit only one of many odd interludes—in which we see a school janitor (Guy Boyd) watching a film-within-our-film, a fluffy romantic comedy credited to Robert Zemeckis which somehow filters into the story of how Jake and Buckley's character met. In the middle of one of Jake and our heroine's many car conversations, she begins stridently opining about Gena Rowlands' performance in John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence—only she's simply reciting Pauline Kael's review of the film from memory. Even a variation on that now-ubiquitous winter tradition—an argument about the "rapey-ness" of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"—gets a peculiarly Kaufman-esque treatment.
It all builds to a finale set in Jake's old high school, as the couple makes an unscheduled stop on their way home that gets progressively weirder. In Reid's book, the sequence is played for mounting tension, as the narrator wonders if she's being stalked by someone. But while Kaufman's version of I'm Thinking of Ending Things does have its creepy moments, that's not really the register in which he prefers to operate. Absurdist comedy and the surprising late arrival of heartbreak are his weapons of choice, as well as a risky willingness not to make it clear exactly what is going on in the reality outside his characters' heads. While the literary source material was considerably clearer about exactly what phenomenon explains the strange shifts in character and time, Kaufman wants to dig more deeply into the feelings behind that reality. Maybe the heightened performances we see at the end of I'm Thinking of Ending Things tell the story of what really happened to Jake and his girlfriend. Or maybe Kaufman, through the way he's interpreting this narrative, is telling us that the way each of us interprets art is the only thing that matters.