Her name is Lucy. Or Louise. Lucinda. Maybe Amy?
She’s a med student, or studying physics or gerontology, a poet or a painter, a film critic or a waitress.
And she lives in her head, narrating everything about this uncomfortable mid-winter road trip with her boyfriend of six weeks.
“What’s the point of going on like this?” she (Jessie Buckley) wonders. “It’s not going anywhere.”
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” she says, but only in her head, and not to the guy driving through a near-blizzard for her to visit his parents.
Yes, “Jake” (Jesse Plemons) is smart, “educated,” perhaps a physicist himself, maybe a painter — if you believe his brittle, smiling-through-the-misery mother (Toni Collette). But every time Jake opens his lips, monotonously mouthing arid banalities or pretentiously quoting Wordsworth or Emerson or David Foster Wallace, she dies a little.
God knows the viewer certainly does.
Charlie “Adaptation” Kaufman’s take on Iain Reid’s novel is cryptic, creepy and clever enough. It’s about loneliness and the risks entailed in ending it, maybe the risks one takes by doing nothing. And Kaufman uses age makeup, dance, unexplained interludes, animation and “Oklahoma!” the musical to make his points and send viewers online searching for answers to his “mystery.”
“The Young Woman” experiences an afternoon and evening driving far into the country to visit those farm parents (Collette and David Thewlis), react to their son’s indulgence of their eccentricities, and witness the ugly flashes of temper they bring out in him.
Mom tries so hard — too hard — “I am SOOoooo glad Jake found someone!”
Dad is a sometimes foul-mouthed curmudgeon, excusing the disastrous state of the livestock the same way he taught Jake to sugar-coat it.
“Life can be difficult on a farm.”
Through the uncomfortable drive there, the visit and the trip back home, the young woman is subjected to a troubling, argument-pierced meal, hallucinatory changes in her hosts –aging one moment, turning up younger the next — and the growing feeling that she’s ridden here with a “creeper” who won’t take her “Take me home” pleas seriously.
She seems like an unreliable narrator, or is she meant to be the narrator at all? All that voice-over (constantly interrupted by Jake attempting to make conversation), and yet, is this really her story?
Maybe it’s really about socially-awkward Jake, the gloomy idealist who believes “There’s someone for everyone.”
And then there’s the “janitor” (Guy Boyd) we see from time to time, cleaning a school, watching a crappy romance “Directed by Robert Zemeckis” on his lunch break.
To say nothing of the ending of “Ending Things,” which many an online or podcasting wag is interpreting, mainly by referring back to Reid’s source novel.
A telling moment — Jake badgers “Lucy/Louise” into reciting her new poem, “Coming home is hard” even with “a wife of a wife-shaped loneliness” waiting for you there. Hard to get happy, or optimistic, after that one. The title isn’t just talking about ending a relationship, is it?
The forlorn landscape (barely glimpsed), the menacing isolation of a blizzard on a country road late at night, the “boyfriend” who takes a shot at singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside…”
“You’re quoting a RAPE song to me?”
It all feeds into the overwhelming melancholy of the piece, where marriage and relationships, farms and farm food and farm families and the cozy comforts of “Oklahoma!” (including a rarely heard “trunk song” cut from the show) are upended and our unheroic heroine puzzles over just what life and “love” are all about, and if the risks one takes by diving in are worth it.
Plemons taps into deep reservoirs of charmless sadness as Jake. And he sings.
The Irish Buckley (“Wild Rose,” “Doolittle”) makes a fine surrogate for the viewer and tour-guide through the mind of Reid as interpreted by Kaufman. And if “The Young Woman” seems more perplexed than alarmed or depressed, that’s by design, too.
There’s none of the wistful romanticism and dark whimsy of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but plenty of the deranged storytelling of “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” — minus the giddy playfulness Kaufman worked into those scripts.
You’ve got to be in the right frame of mind for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which can be as much a downer and a chore as “Anomalisa” or “Synechdoche, New York.” In the end, it’s a morose puzzle of a tale that one can appreciate, even if you don’t mind if you never see it again.
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons Toni Collette, David Thewlis, Guy Boyd and the voice of Oliver Platt.
Credits: Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, based on the novel by Iain Reid. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:15