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Movie review: Hallucinatory 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' one of Charlie Kaufman's strangest films to date

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Writer/director Charlie Kaufman, the brain behind "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Adaptation." and "Being John Malkovich," became a Hollywood darling for his willingness to stretch the limits of storytelling.

But while his weird and whimsical style broke the rules and taunted tradition, his screenplays always excavated unexpected nuggets of truth and beauty.

In his directorial efforts, Kaufman has even further expanded the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, creating something like philosophical theater that utilizes the flexibility of cinema to muse on identity, aging, life, death and love. His latest film, "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," arriving on Netflix, is one of his most outre efforts yet.

Although Kaufman's work willfully denies genre and categorization, the unsettling yet mesmeric "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is decidedly his horror film. Based on the 2016 debut novel by Iain Reed, a horror thriller that was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award, the film's atmosphere is suffused with dread and foreboding, punctuated with flourishes of body horror. The camera drifts and lurks in dim, claustrophobic spaces, where the inscrutable, unpredictable characters clatter together, building to an uneasy denouement.

The snowy setting and entanglement with the ideas of isolation, genius, diligence, hallucination and time make "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" a fascinating comparison with Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." However, thematically, the closest companion to the film is Kaufman's own "Synecdoche, New York," his 2008 directorial debut, about an unlucky-in-love theater director who sublimates his personal problems into a sprawling piece of theater that takes over his life.

Kaufman takes the plot and characters of Reed's book and applies all of his own existential obsessions and compulsions to create a truly mind-bending experience from which one can't look away. He layers on heightened stylistic choices to highlight the inherent artifice of storytelling, a theme with which he often grapples, and tosses any generic expectations to veer straight into a theatrical examination about what it means to tell the story of a relationship, tinged by the colored lenses of differing perspectives and memories.

"I'm Thinking of Ending Things" takes place over the course of one night in a relationship that is doomed from the start. Painter/poet/physics student Lucy/Lucia/Louisa (Jessie Buckley) — we never know her correct name, which adds to the slippery nature of identity in the film — embarks on a trip to meet the parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) of her new boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons, a second coming of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in "Synecdoche": big, blond, slightly menacing and preternaturally talented). She doesn't see a future with Jake, but out of some sense of obligation or kindness, she has agreed to dinner at their farm, which she will come to regret by the end of the night, her inner monologue propelling the film along.

Things are certainly strange at Jake's parents' house (an understatement: The home appears to be a perplexing time vortex), and they only get stranger. But she rolls with everything surprisingly well, eager to please just to get through the evening and back to the city. She and Jake depart in a blizzard, and with her mind firmly made up to end the relationship, and his set on prolonging the journey, things go from bad, to worse, to even more surreal.

"I'm Thinking of Ending Things" serves as a vehicle to wrestle with the nature of relationships, and what it truly means to connect your own identity to another, which seems impossible, if not treacherous, here. It's a fable that whipsaws between the rational and the bizarre, and like all of his work, it presents the unique opportunity to once again plunge into the weird, dark, mind of Kaufman, searching for rare gems of insight. He, and the actors, ensure it's worth the trip, if you dare.

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'I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS'

3.5 stars

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette, David Thewlis.

Directed by Charlie Kaufman.

Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes.

Rated R for language including some sexual references.

Available on Netflix

 

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