Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Lonely Room” — a song cut from the 1955 movie version of their “Oklahoma!” — finds the villainous Jud Fry alone in his smokehouse, “set by myself/ Like a cobweb on a shelf.” He’s musing on ways to wrest the lovely Laurey Williams from smart-aleck cowhand Curly McLain when “a dream starts a-dancin' in my head/ And all the things that I wish fer/ Turn out like I want them to be.” At long last making its film debut, the tune keeps sneaking onto the soundtrack of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s haunting adaptation of Iain Reid’s 2016 novel. At once sinister and silly, this perplexing picture is probably going to leave a lot of audiences scratching their heads when it starts streaming on Netflix this weekend. But if I might offer a helpful hint: Kaufman didn’t pick that song just because he liked the melody.
Reid’s book is a creepy, compulsively readable yarn with a gotcha ending that could have made a terrific “Twilight Zone” episode. But as expected from “Being John Malkovich” screenwriter Kaufman — who so famously turned his struggles with adaptations into the movie “Adaptation.”-- Reid’s story becomes something like a clothesline for the auteur’s pet obsessions, from which he hangs lengthy dissertations on decrepitude, the mutability of memory and most importantly, the poisonous effects pop culture fantasies can have on the minds of miserable men. In many ways, the movie is an attempt to answer a question asked during the opening scene of Kaufman and director Michel Gondry’s 2004 masterpiece, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” when Jim Carrey wonders, “Why do I fall in love with every woman I see that shows me the least bit of attention?”
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” follows two grad students played by Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley on a snowy evening road trip to his Oklahoma home. It’s six weeks into their relationship and he’s bringing her to meet his parents, unaware that she’s decided to break up with him when they get back. He can tell something’s wrong, though. So can we. This is a most unnervingly edited movie, with clipped conversations cutting to incongruous reaction shots. The smiles never quite sync up with what they’re saying, and continuity errors abound. Not just visual ones either, but scripting matters such as the Buckley character’s name. Was it Lucy or Louisa? She’s a physicist in one scene and a painter in the next. Five minutes ago she claimed she didn’t care much for poetry, but now she’s reciting something she wrote?
The film’s centerpiece is a dazzlingly discomfiting visit with Plemons’ parents, played to the hilt by David Thewlis and Toni Collette as their son sits there stewing. It’s a sequence for everybody who ever wished the chicken dinner scene in “Eraserhead” had gone on for an hour, full of ominous portents, offhanded insults and boisterous belly laughs that act as pressure release valves for an almost unbearable tension. Thewlis and Collette are all sharp edges and elbows. She answers questions too quickly and intently. He’s overstepping boundaries in a passive-aggressive fog. Whenever one of them leaves the room they return with a different injury or ailment, aging rapidly over the course of the evening. Even more curious is Lucy’s behavior — or is it Louisa’s? — snapping in and out of an entirely different personality to offer overenthusiastic, scripted-sounding anecdotes about how she and their son first met.
But all these stories she tells contradict themselves in tiny ways, and he twitches visibly whenever she’s called on the discrepancies. I should probably stop here and interject that I can fully understand why this movie has driven some folks I know insane with rage. If you’re not keyed into Kaufman’s corkscrew comic sensibility I imagine it’s abrasively unsettling, and more literal-minded viewers who think films should be tethered to realism and plausible explanations will probably be banging their heads against the wall before the 30-minute mark. Kaufman basically blows the book’s twist ending in his opening scenes, so uninterested is he in providing conventional genre satisfactions.
And much like the director’s debut novel “Antkind,” published earlier this summer, it can be a little inside baseball. One sequence finds our young lovers arguing about John Cassavetes’ 1974 “A Woman Under the Influence” when suddenly she starts quoting verbatim from Pauline Kael's New Yorker pan of the film. A lit cigarette somehow appears in her hand and Buckley slips into a staggeringly great Gena Rowlands impersonation while reciting Kael’s criticisms of Rowlands’ performance. It’s a bizarre, seemingly nonsensical non sequitur, and yet when the characters return to mimicking mannerisms from “A Woman Under the Influence” later in the movie you realize that Kaufman is very much concerned about the influences that women are forced to operate under.
This is the first of his films in which the writer’s rambling, stream-of-consciousness narration is given to the female lead instead of the shambling sad sack trying to woo her. Buckley — an Irish singer who delivered a star-making turn that sadly nobody saw in last year’s “Wild Rose” — does remarkable work in what should have been an impossible assignment, struggling to assert a personality of her own amid the male fantasy projections and unfair expectations that keep hijacking every scene. Early on, a character is watching what turns out to be a brutal parody of romantic comedies, in which a man’s overbearing, stalkerish behavior ruins the livelihood of a small-town waitress and that’s how she knows he really loves her. Later in the film, details from that fake movie start worming their way into our protagonists’ backstories.
“A societal malady” is how Louisa — or is it Lucy? — describes our collective addiction to Hollywood happy endings and one-sided ideas of romance. In typical Kaufman fashion, the boundaries between fantasy and reality — which were never really firm to begin with — grow increasingly more porous as “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” incorporates amateur ballet, animation, Broadway musicals and an absolutely savage skewering of “A Beautiful Mind.” Plemons does a tremendous job of channeling Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” stand-in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s heavy-breathing despair, but “Cold War” cinematographer Łukasz Żal brings crisp colors and a visual pizzazz that were missing from the director’s rather oppressively drab debut. They’re having fun with the artifice, making this one of the few non-Gondry Kaufman pictures in which the visuals are as playful as the writing.
The surreal final half-hour — departing drastically from Reid’s book while remaining strangely faithful in spirit — defies any logical description save to say it’s a depressive’s equivalent to the stargate sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey” by way of Rodgers and Hammerstein. You finish the film cursing the lopsided burdens placed on women stuck shouldering the affections of broken men like Jud Fry, irreparably damaged by the dreams they had while awake in their lonely rooms.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” starts streaming on Netflix Friday, Sept. 4.