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Review: ‘I’m Thinking …’ is another marvelous, melancholy mind trap from Charlie Kaufman

Jesse Plemons, from left, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and David Thewlis in the movie "I'm Thinking of Ending Things."
(Mary Cybulski / Netflix)

It’s hard to think of a contemporary filmmaker who has taken the life of the mind quite as literally as Charlie Kaufman. His first film as a director, the tragicomic fantasia “Synecdoche, New York,” threw off the dizzying sensation of watching a movie actively mastermind its own existence and eventual destruction: Thoughts became structures, structures became art, art became life (and vice versa), before it all came crashing down in one glorious meta-ruin.

And then there were his earlier, virtuosic screenplays for comedies like “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which had a way of making radical ideas seem disarmingly commonplace: What if we could hijack each other’s noggins or cut our emotional losses through selective amnesia? To watch those pictures was to see the answers being worked out thrillingly on the spot. More than most movies, Kaufman’s can seem possessed of a strange, unnerving self-awareness. It’s almost as if they can think for themselves.

To say that he has done it again with “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” his infectiously digressive and beautifully controlled new movie, is to express a sentiment that is both accurate and misleading. “I’m Thinking,” as it might just as well be called, is another of Kaufman’s patented studies in the transmigration of neurons. Like his recent puppet play, “Anomalisa,” it flirts with the delusion that the world, which may seem concrete to our eyes and ears, is a projection or an insidious conspiracy, perhaps even one of our own making. And like “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine,” it delights in chasing its characters down the rabbit holes of consciousness. At one point, someone makes accidental reference to “quantum psychics,” a malapropism that perfectly describes Kaufman’s own field of expertise.

Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons in the movie "I'm Thinking of Ending Things."
(Mary Cybulski / Netflix)
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At the same time, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” behaves in ways that no other Kaufman movie has, which is to say that sometimes, it almost (almost!) behaves like other, more conventional movies. And this, sorry to pile on the paradoxes, has the curious effect of making it all seem even stranger. Adapted, reshuffled and significantly elaborated from a suspenseful 2016 novel by Iain Reid, the film begins as a tetchy-tender relationship comedy, then begins to disassemble and reassemble itself like a puzzle, all while forever threatening to morph into a horror flick. It’s a road-trip movie, a haunted-house movie and one hell of a long day’s journey into night.

A young woman is driving with her boyfriend to visit his parents, making their way through a quickly intensifying Oklahoma blizzard. They’re played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, a nominal coincidence — a Jess-taposition! — that might have seemed like stunt casting if the two actors weren’t so suited to their roles. They’re as ideally matched as their names, even if their characters’ relationship doesn’t look long for this world.

For the cast of the new Netflix psychological thriller “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” making the film involved a journey into the mind of writer-director Charlie Kaufman.

“I’m thinking of ending things,” the young woman thinks, over and over again, in a voice-over so persistent that there seem to be three people in the car, not two. Over the sounds of wind and snow, we hear her carrying on a fascinating conversation with herself and a slightly duller one with her boyfriend, whom she’s been dating for several weeks and doesn’t expect to be with for much longer. His name is Jake, by the way. After a while, you realize you’re not entirely sure if her name is Lucy, or Louisa, or something else — which is odd, since she so clearly dominates the story’s perspective.

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Or does she? That’s one of the movie’s more perplexing riddles. Here’s another: Is the Young Woman, as she’s billed in the credits, a painter, a waitress or a student? An expert on gerontology, cinema or the rabies virus? What we’re dealing with, in other words, is a nameless heroine, a troubled relationship, subzero temperatures, plot points that shift like quicksand and sustained behind-the-wheel cinematography. As it all unfolded, I sometimes wondered if I were watching a mash-up of “Rebecca” and “The Shining” as directed by the late Abbas Kiarostami.

David Thewlis and Toni Collette in the movie "I'm Thinking of Ending Things."
(Mary Cybulski / Netflix)

Actually, I wondered nothing of the sort. But if that struck you as an irritating non sequitur, then I have given you a reasonably accurate impression of Jake. A somewhat milder version of the many socially maladroit, chronically melancholic schlubs who have traipsed through Kaufman’s fiction, Jake is a fount of impressive, useless erudition. He takes some interest in his girlfriend’s pursuits — the books she’s read, the poetry she’s written, the topics she’s researched. But his admiration for her mind seems inextricable from a much deeper fascination with his own.

Over the course of their trip, he will pepper their conversation with assorted mansplain-y notes on Wordsworth, Tolstoy, Mussolini, Brezhnev, Anna Kavan, David Foster Wallace and the Broadway musical. (This section comes with a regionally appropriate emphasis on “Oklahoma!,” which is lovingly performed in excerpts whose context I wouldn’t dream of giving away.) All this may sound insufferable, for our heroine and by extension the audience. But Kaufman, not for the first time, turns insufferableness into a kind of philosophical sweet spot, even as he propounds the idea that narcissism might be an extension, or even a vital subspecies, of romantic love.

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Eventually, the two arrive at a farmhouse that reveals itself to be a warren of creepy vibes, narrative ambiguities and oppressive wallpaper. (The splendidly drab production design is by Molly Hughes.) The specters of “Get Out,” “Hereditary” and other haunted-house thrillers hover over the place, which comes with a dank basement, a creaky staircase and a family dog with an unnerving habit of coming and going. Similarly apt to appear and disappear are Jake’s dad (David Thewlis), who’s a touch dyspeptic and fond of inappropriate jokes, and his emotionally volatile mom (Toni Collette), who laughs a little too hard at them. They’re odd, unpredictable, a lot to take. They’re also fascinating company, especially since they seem to be the primary expressions of the movie’s incessant, compulsive mutability.

Are the parents real? Or are they phantoms, flickers of memory trapped in the projector beam of Jake’s recollections? It scarcely seems to matter, since the sad personal history they bring to light — devoid of melodrama or tragedy, but suffused with the sting of constant, cumulative disappointments — feels so vivid and moving. And as the story heads back out into the frigid night air — stopping briefly at a fast-food joint and a high school where a lonely janitor (Guy Boyd) goes about his business — a hard, gloomy truth sets in even as the story itself tilts ever further into abstraction. You may question if anything you’re seeing is real, or if reality even matters in a medium where authenticity and artifice go hand-in-hand.

Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley in the movie "I'm Thinking of Ending Things."
(Mary Cybulski / Netflix)

Kaufman’s own artifice has seldom been more skillful. He and his cinematographer, Lukasz Zal (“Cold War”), use a tight, boxy aspect ratio to amplify the claustrophobia and further complicate the film’s play with psychology and perspective. You are advised to pay close visual attention, especially to Robert Frazen’s pinpoint editing and Melissa Toth’s subtly shifting costumes, even as you lean in to catch every word of Kaufman’s torrential dialogue and each detail of the mercurial, tinnitus-evoking sound design.

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The seamlessness of Kaufman’s technique partly accounts for why “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” singular as it is, sometimes seems to resemble and even reference other movies. And some of those references, of course, carry the familiar, bitter tang of his neuroses. An ode to “A Beautiful Mind,” that infinitely tidier portrait of a splintered psyche, blurs the line between mockery and homage. And the Young Woman, who at one point describes movie watching as a “societal malady,” later regurgitates whole chunks from Pauline Kael’s pan of “A Woman Under the Influence,” including her description of Gena Rowlands’ performance as “the most transient big performance I’ve ever seen.”

The exact opposite might be said of the two central performances here. Buckley, so radiant and guileless in movies like “Beast” and “Wild Rose,” must navigate a role whose parameters shift every minute, like a figure skater doing perfectly executed leaps for two hours. Plemons has a less showy but equally tricky task: He must be mellow and prickly, recessive and domineering, intelligent and obtuse. He must turn this tale of a relationship’s likely end into a grand meditation on failure, disappointment and loss — and also, if you stick around past the closing credits, the possibility that every end marks a new beginning. I think.

‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

Rated: R, for language including some sexual references

Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes

Playing: Available Sept. 4 on Netflix

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