There's no use hiding the facts: I'm Thinking of Ending Things is maddeningly obscure, and yet if you are in the right mood (as many critics were), you may find you love the movie. I'm here to confess that I did not love it.
Charlie Kaufman has made a career out of hard-to-categorize writing that challenges audiences while always suggesting big themes underneath the odd surfaces. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Early on, he worked on TV series like the bizarre Get a Life and the controversial Dana Carvey Show. When I try to get a handle on Kaufman, I find it useful to think of those series, which were off the wall at times in sneaky ways. I've liked some of the movies based on his screenplays, especially Adaptation. But in 2008, he started directing his work, with Synecdoche, New York, which I most definitely did not like. I wrote, "There are films that reward multiple viewings; I’ve watched a lot of them. But there is a difference between something that gets better every time you see it, and something that is incomprehensible on first viewing." I'm Thinking of Ending Things is the latter.
I know there is an audience for this, that many people like the puzzles a movie like this offers, that the uncertainties of the narrative might reflect the uncertainties of the characters, or even of life itself. But I prefer to have something to latch on to. I don't need my hand held, and I often enjoy flights of fantasy that take off from seemingly mundane beginnings. And I'm Thinking of Ending Things does strike one as mundane at first glance. But when I don't like this kind of movie, it's usually because I think the film maker is purposely obscure, that they are uninterested in anyone else understanding what they are doing. I can't say Kaufman is the only person who understands I'm Thinking of Ending Things ... for one thing, it's based on a novel, and I assume the author also "gets it". But I get the feeling Kaufman is happy to have each person in the audience come up with a different "meaning" for his film, and part of me thinks that's an excuse for not being clear enough in the first place. So while you might find pleasure in a movie where it's not clear if some or all of the characters are real, where it's not clear if the entire movie is or is not a fantasy, where it's not clear what's going on from one shot to the next ... well, I didn't get that pleasure from I'm Thinking of Ending Things.
Stars Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley are excellent. Co-stars Toni Collette and David Thewlis are less so, although I think their (over)acting is what Kaufman wanted. The cinematography from Lukasz Zal (Ida) is appropriately gorgeous and spooky as needed. Even someone like me, who was ultimately disappointed, found things to like. The one thing that should have appealed to me (Buckley's character offers a take on A Woman Under the Influence that is taken verbatim from Pauline Kael's review) just felt like a stunt. And I want my stunts to offer more fun than I got out of watching this film.