I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix)

* * * 1/2

Some people love Charlie Kaufman, in the way that others love Christopher Nolan and others Quentin Tarantino. He has a distinctive voice: whether it’s solely as the screenwriter – Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Adaptation – or as auteur – Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa or now I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Kaufman is grappling with very particular themes in a very particular way. And, as Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood was for Tarantino and Tenet is for Nolan, so Ending Things is very, very much a Kaufman work, and will appeal greatly to those who love him while running the clear risk of alienating those who don’t. Or to put it another way: if you’ve previously not grooved with Kaufman’s vibe, you’ll probably hate this.

I like Kaufman and I liked this, but not in the way that same of his acolytes clearly loved it. It’s full of ideas, it wears its literary and intellectual curiosity with pride, and it’s borderline incomprehensible. Twice – in the first and third acts – it essentially pauses the dramatic action for an incredibly lengthy philosophical / pop cultural discussion that may drive you to tears. And the more you know the references – including the 2016 source novel by Iain Reid- the more the film will work for you. It’s a kind of cinematic club, with enjoyable membership being contingent on knowing and liking the stuff that Kaufman does.

On the surface, a young woman, played by Jessie Buckley, accompanies her boyfriend, played by Jesse Plemons, on a dark snowy drive to visit his parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, at their farmhouse in one of the United States. In voiceover, she contemplates “ending things”, presumably with him. But nothing is as it seems, and the film keeps opening up, shifting perspective, re-framing expectations and ultimately re-jigging the entire narrative voice. It is, deliberately, a puzzle-box. References abound: Thewlis played the lead voice in Anomalisa, while Plemens seems to be deliberately evoking the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played the lead in Synecdoche, New York, the film of Kaufman’s this one most clearly resembles. But is he, or is Plemens just evolving into a Hoffman ‘type’? It’s a mystery, and to enjoy this film, mystery must be embraced.

That said, I listened to a podcast afterwards hosted by a couple of people who had read the book, and once I heard what they had to say, not only did the whole film make sense, it became deeply satisfying. Movies probably shouldn’t require outside research to ‘work’, but that seems to be the deal Kaufman’s demanding of us to come into his world, and why not? He’s an idiosyncratic outsider, his films break the rules, and this one has its own. There is a great deal of rigour and substance here, but you’ve got to be willing to dig for it; otherwise you may scratch your head until you’re bleeding.

Mention should be made of Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, which is superb. As he proved with Ida and Cold War, nobody shoots snow like he does, nor uses the 4:3 ratio to heighten the tension of emotional space.

Anamolisa

maxresdefault**** (out of five)

These days I stay until the end of the credits, not because I want to see if a Marvel movie throws me a bone, but because often end credits give you intriguing insights into a film’s production, from acknowledging tax credits (so that’s why so-and-so was shot in the Isle of Man) to revealing how many stunt people were involved (Mad Max: Fury Road many many; something CGI-heavy like a Marvel movie, less than you’d expect).

Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s remarkable animated feature Anamolisa’s end credits reveal that the film is indeed the work of old-school “puppeteers” (stop-motion animators) rather than computer whizzes; they also reveal thousands of thanked patrons who contributed to the film’s production via Kickstarter, which answered my question, “Wow, how in the world did this get made?”

That’s the question because the film is so personal, so unique and so blatantly non-commercial that I can’t imagine anyone who has ever heard the term “bottom line” giving it a dollar. Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Synecdoche New York) maintains a resolutely independent stance, telling the stories he damn well wants to tell, and good on the Kickstarters for letting him.

So Anamolisa won’t be for everyone. It’s certainly not for children, despite being animated. It’s the story of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a business author and English expat living in Los Angeles who goes to Cincinnati to deliver a talk. Michael is suffering from some sort of psychological malfunction (he could indeed have the full-blown Fregoli Delusion – google it if you want to go into the film a little armed, don’t if you want to go in cold) and may be in the mood to disrupt, add to or at least spice up his unexpectedly structured life, if just for a night. We’re privvy to that night, set mainly in Michael’s upscale, rather characterless hotel.

While the film has an even and perhaps slow pace, it skips from incident to incident so precisely that I was hanging on each of its movements as though it were an action thriller (and it is so not an action thriller), desperate to see what happened next. Kaufman’s script may be some sort of wonderwork, and the voice performances by Thewlis, Tom Noonan and Jennifer Jason Leigh are perfect and extremely moving. This is a very niche film that may totally entrance the right audience. I keep thinking about it – it got inside me and it’s sticking around. Definitely worth trying if you want something original.