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.

The Program

program_xlg***1/2 (out of five)

Stephen Frears knows how to make movies. Check out this selection from his CV: My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, The Queen and Philomena. If you can’t find something there to love, you don’t appreciate cinema.

His ferocious portrait of Lance Armstrong’s doping program is as cold and steely as its subject. There’s no time wasted here on wives, children, parents, childhood, religion, politics, puppy dogs or pussy cats. This film is about bicycles and drugs – mainly drugs.

Of course, it’s really about Armstrong, and as played superbly – and very, very coldly – by the extremely gifted Ben Foster (3:10 To Yuma, Lone Survivor), he’s a creep. This adheres to everything I’ve read and seen and heard about the cyclist, which amounts to a lot. Even his attempts to be charming are creepy. His ambition is so naked, so transparent, he cannot even pretend to give a damn about other people.

Set up against Armstrong is Sunday Times writer David Walsh, who was instrumental, but not solely responsible, for exposing Armstrong’s staggering levels of deception. As played amiably and professionally – as usual – by Chris O’Dowd, Walsh is a decent enough good antagonist (to this story’s villainous protagonist) but the circumstances of history prevent them from having a proper showdown, and thus we the audience from achieving emotional catharsis.

That said, I was gripped throughout. I’m a sucker for the material, granted, but that’s because it’s absolutely fascinating stuff. If you’re green on Armstrong or a Tour De France junkie, there’ll be something here for you. As usual for Frears, the craftsmanship is superb, and the casting in particular is inspired: Lee Pace, Jesse Plemens and a surprising and pleasing Dustin Hoffman are all great in their roles. The one bum note is a truly weird performance by Guillaume Canet as the godfather of doping, “Dr.” Michele Ferrari. It may well be that Ferrari used cyclists like rats in an experiment, but to play him like Dr. Frankenstein from an early talkie is a bit much.