Place the superb actors Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons in a car, hand them just about any decent screenplay that justifies the setting and you’re halfway home right there — and given the script they’re bringing to life in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is an adaptation by Charlie Kaufman, it’s hardly a surprise this turns out to be one of the most intriguing and creative works of the year.
I mean, how many movies are going to feature conversations about suicide bombers, the musical “Oklahoma!,” whether Mussolini got too much credit for the trains running on time, movies ranging from “Forget Paris” to “A Woman Under the Influence,” the poems of William Wordsworth and a painting by Andrew Wyeth?
And that’s just for starters.
It’s been some 20 years since Charlie Kaufman exploded on the scene as the screenwriter of films such as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Kaufman’s work became ever more surreal and existential as he wrote and directed “Synedoche, New York” (2008) and the stop-motion animated “Anomalisa” (2015). With “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Kaufman is directing and adapting the acclaimed 2016 novel of the same name by Iain Reid, and he does a brilliant job of remaining faithful to the book while adding his own unique spin(s).
For a long and riveting opening stretch, we’re in the car with Buckley’s Lucy and Plemons’ Jake as they drive in wintry weather to visit Jake’s parents on the farm where he grew up. There’s an almost Woody Allen-esque vibe at first, with Lucy saying in voice-over, “I’m thinking of ending things,” while the oblivious Jake prattles on in a monotone about his love for musicals, rattling title after title off. Is she thinking of ending the relationship, or ending, you know, things? We shall see.
Once Jake and Lucy arrive at his boyhood home, the tone switches to something akin to a brooding horror film. Jake gives Lucy a tour of the farm and barely notices the dead lambs frozen in the barn. When Lucy asks what happened to them, Jake says: I don’t know what you’re asking … They’re already dead, what does it matter!
It gets weirder. Much. Weirder. The house itself is dark and foreboding, with ominous scratches on the door to the shuttered basement, and creepy figures in porcelain and wood on the shelves. You can almost smell the must and mildew.
“What are those scratches on the door?” asks Lucy.
“Dog,” replies Jake. “It’s from the dog. Mostly.”
Enter Jake’s mother (Toni Collette), a manic-depressive whirlwind who has whipped up a dinner straight out of a 1950s cookbook, and his father (David Thewlis), a daft Brit with an unexplained Band-Aid on his head. From room to room and from moment to moment, Mom and/or Dad seem to age and then de-age at least 30 years. (Maybe they’re big fans of “The Irishman.”) Then there’s the aforementioned dog, Jimmy, who is always soaking wet and shaking off the cold. (When Lucy visits Jake’s childhood bedroom, she spots an urn with picture of a dog that looks like Jimmy and a little plaque saying, “JIMMY.” One is left hoping that’s Jimmy II downstairs.)
All very creepy stuff — but “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” isn’t a ghost story per se, nor is it the kind of film where we expect to find monsters lurking in the basement. It’s more ... unsettling. We’re startled to learn Lucy and Jake have been together only six weeks, given they act like a couple who can’t remember when they weren’t together. From time to time we cut away to an elderly janitor (Guy Boyd) who always seems to be mopping the high school floors at all hours, except for the moment when he takes a break and watches a romantic comedy on TV that ends with “DIRECTED BY ROBERT ZEMECKIS.” (The movie within the movie looks like nothing Robert Zemeckis would ever direct.)
It’s possible the high school janitor is actually Jake —but we’ve learned Jake is a renowned physicist, so how does that add up? Then there’s Lucy, who is being bombarded by phone calls and grows jumpier as the night wears on. By the time Jake and Lucy stop for ice cream in the middle of a blizzard, we are firmly planted in the Twilight Zone.
Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons are brilliant together. Their early conversations, bizarre as the topics might be, have the comfortable if slightly tense rhythms of a couple who are beginning to know each other perhaps too well. When the storyline takes some drastic hairpin turns and the entire vibe of the film changes, they’re right there setting the tone. Kaufman frames certain shots like someone who loved “The Shining,” and stages a wildly creative dance number out of nowhere. The sets and lighting and crisp editing help create that distinctive Charlie Kaufman flavor. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is crazy good.