By Leah Greenblatt
August 27, 2020 at 12:02 PM EDT
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Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX

A Charlie Kaufman project often feels less like a movie than an unsolved mystery, a kind of meta puzzlebox whose whirring gears and trapdoors only drop to reveal... more curiosities. In films he strictly penned the script for, like Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, those wilder instincts are often tempered; in the ones he also directs (Synecdoche, New York; Anomalisa), his id runs free.

And oh, does it sprint through I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a riddle wrapped in an enigma and staged like a passion play. Jessie Buckley is Lucy (or is she?), a young woman meeting her boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) family for the first time. But as they bicker and parry through a driving snowstorm, she seems to be having more than second thoughts — doubts not reassured by the uncanny American Gothic tableau that greets them when they arrive: hysterically high-strung mother (Toni Collette); odd, insinuating father (David Thewlis).

Even the property itself looks depressed, the neglected relic of another era. And anomalies keep creeping into the frame: a scorched patch of earth in the barn, ragged scratches on a basement door, animals and objects that seem to move to their own time signatures. Lucy’s own backstory shifts constantly too; whether she’s a landscape painter, a grad student, a gerontologist. But allusions to her “real” life increasingly feel like feints, a series of shifting fictions in this place where age and identity are as malleable as the weather.

There are intimations in all this of some kind of horror; a house of secrets and strange, scurrying things. The source material, Canadian writer Iain Reid's 2016 novel of the same name, has more explicit words for that, but Kaufman’s characters mostly just talk, and their dizzying stretches of dialogue — about insects or cinema or soft-serve ice cream — have the quality of both earnest debate and avant-garde theater, ebbing and flowing on their own inscrutable tides.

Buckley and Plemons are left to carry that water for much of I'm Thinking's 134-minute runtime, and they're both fantastically game, infusing the movie's heady concepts with a naturalism that borders on heroic. Their job, they seem to know, is not to be actors so much as ambassadors to this planet: prisms refracting all the strange marvels contained in Kaufman’s great, jittery brain. In moments that portal is genuinely thrilling, but it can be exhausting, too; like being set down and left to wander, without a compass or a map, in the center of someone else’s dream. B

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