"I'm thinking of ending things" is the first line of dialogue in this film, uttered in voiceover by a nerdy young woman (Jessie Buckley) whose dull boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) is driving her to meet his parents. She's referring to her unspoken desire to end their relationship after just six weeks. But as the brisk snowy day slowly turns more and more dreamlike, the phrase begins to allude to something more existential.
This being a Charlie Kaufman movie, you come in expecting a certain amount of weirdness. Yet during this first act, in which the socially awkward couple simply chats in Jake's car, you'd almost think Kaufman was delivering a straightforward narrative. Only the random cutaways to an elderly high school janitor suggest that there's something more here than just a meet-the-parents fantasia. Once we arrive at the remote Oklahoma farmhouse where Jake's parents live, however, it's clear we're in Kaufman territory – especially when the parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) start shifting dramatically in age.
I had assumed that I'm Thinking of Ending Things employed an original screenplay, until the end credits revealed that it was in fact based on a 2016 novel by Iain Reid. Now that I've read a synopsis of Reid's book, Kaufman's adaptation appears relatively faithful, at least up until the end, where, thankfully, it diverges. Reid apparently explains the inscrutable goings-on with a twist that smacks of psychological horror; Kaufman instead crafts a wistful third act provides no direct answers. There are certainly things here that may only make sense to Kaufman – if, indeed, they even make sense to him – but even if you can't figure out every detail, you'll still walk away with an understanding of what Kaufman (if not Reid) is trying to say.
Referencing everything from the musical Oklahoma! to John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence to, perversely, A Beautiful Mind, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is less of a story and more of a tone poem about a life unfulfilled. It made me think of all the people in the world whose intelligence and sensitivity might have led them to great things, yet for whatever reason they never realized their potential. Like all of Kaufman's work, once you get past the surface strangeness, you'll find a genuine melancholy and sense of loss. This is a baffling and claustrophobic film, but its payoff is haunting.