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Im Thinking of Ending Things: The most un-Netflix “Netflix film” to date

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[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDTg62vsV4U?start=0&wmode=transparent&w=640&h=360]
The trailer for I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Lost in all the hype around the release of two surefire blockbusters with very different approaches to the current state of cinema, this weekend Netflix quietly debuted the first Charlie Kaufman film in five years: I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Kaufman's enigmatic and absurd worlds—from Adaptation to Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—often hinge on big concepts and even bigger ideas. So while the director's work may not have the same audience potential as Tenet or Mulan, it can really stick with you (Eternal Sunshine made Ars' list of the best sci-fi ever, for instance). To a subset of film fans, this is definitely the most anticipated film of Labor Day weekend 2020.

The fact that Kaufman finally opted to partner with a major streaming service means I'm Thinking of Ending Things theoretically has the potential to help the filmmaker find his biggest audience, too. But, well… while I'm Thinking of Ending Things was always going to be somewhat bizarre, the most perplexing thing about it may be calling it a "Netflix film." Prepare to hit play on the platform's oddest release to date.

Home on the range

Quantum physics student Lucy (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) set out for rural Oklahoma farmland so she can meet his parents for the first time. The two haven't been dating very long, but Lucy's inner thoughts already suggest they won't be dating much longer. "I should be excited, looking towards the first of many—but I'm not," Lucy narrates early in their claustrophobic car ride. When they finally arrive? "Everything has to die, thats the truth… its a uniquely human fantasy that things will get better, born, perhaps, out of a uniquely human understanding that they will not.”

But still, Lucy sees Jake as fine. He treats her nicely. He has interests and a drive to improve. And evidently family matters to him, because he'll navigate what looks like a developing blizzard for this dinner. Lucy needs to get home tonight to make it to work in the morning, and Jake initially commits to that tight timeline, too.

The blizzard quickly becomes the least of Lucy's concerns, though. Jake's parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) almost immediately come across as strange. Harmless, based on first impressions, but totally strange. And by the time dessert has been brought out, Lucy senses something's up. She keeps getting missed calls from "Lucy." The family dog won't stop shaking off non-existent water. And pictures of baby Jake on the wall intermittently look a whole awful lot like baby Lucy. Jake warned her the old farmhouse didn't have much to it, particularly its nondescript bedrooms upstairs and the unfinished basement beneath. But as the blizzard keeps worsening and Jake slowly loses his enthusiasm for heading back promptly, Lucy starts exploring what she believed to be a farmhouse but what increasingly seems to be some fixed place with very fluid definitions of time and reality.

  • Jake (Jesse Plemons) and Lucy (Jessie Buckley) started dating 6 or 7 weeks ago, memory is a bit fuzzy in I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020
  • You'll get intimately familiar with the front seat of Jake's nondescript four door economy car in I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020
  • David Thewlis as "Father" and Toni Collette as "Mother," two roles that let them turn the absurdity up to 11. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020
  • You thought your dinner with the significant other's parents was bad? You haven't seen anything yet. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020
  • It's not always clear what's real and what isn't, but the world of I'm Thinking of Ending Things isn't limited to Jake, Lucy, and his parents. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020
  • Director Charlie Kaufman (right) always has a vision even if the worlds he builds tend to be a bit surreal. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

Lucy, I don't know what I'm seeing either

I'm Thinking of Ending Things leans so hard into the abstract that you can't help but wonder what the full picture is even while your viewing is in progress. Normally, that's part of the charm with a Kaufman film, but it's a dangerous proposition with something exclusive to Netflix. In the pre-quarantimes, once you purchased a ticket for the theater, you were pot committed and focused only on the screen. But a streaming movie today has to compete for your attention again and again as you're stuck at home with others and your phone is within arm's reach. I'm Thinking of Ending Things will test many viewers' commitment more than a few times over its two-hours-plus.

This project was envisioned for Netflix from the start, so it's surprising how un-Netflix the final version feels. Yes, the streaming service has other examples of truly indulgent filmmaking (Roma) and meandering, methodically paced stories (The Irishman), but those films are the exceptions. Netflix more regularly excels at lean, fast-moving films across genres, from Extraction to To All the Boys I Loved Before to Dolemite Is My Name. By contrast, the first half hour of I'm Thinking of Ending Things takes place entirely in a dimly lit car with Lucy and Jake in close up. Things truly ratchet up when Lucy and Jake reach the farmhouse, but even that is fleeting. Soon Jake and Lucy escape back to their car, where lengthy discussions of filmmaker John Cassavetess 1974 thriller A Woman Under the Influence, David Foster Wallace's legacy, and the nature of personality soon follow. “Youre being willfully obtuse,” Lucy says to Jake (and not to Kaufman, I think).

Overall, I'm Thinking of Ending Things comes off very stage play-y: minimal sets (the car, the farmhouse, a Dairy Queen knock-off, and a school), long scenes made of very little action and very in-depth dialogue, and lots of quotes, ideas, or moments that feel allegorical as they're happening. (This surface-level analogy gets amplified Read More – Source