Until the end, that is, but even then maybe not quite. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is based on a novel by the Canadian writer Iain Reid, a spare and elusive story that provides Kaufman with a stable enough trellis for his own florid preoccupations. The film is suspenseful because it generates uncertainty about its own premises, and because the movements of the camera, the strangeness of Molly Hughes’s production design and the tremors of Jay Wadley’s musical score guide the viewer toward dread. Lucy is often puzzled, sometimes curious, but maybe not as afraid as she should be. Unless, that is, her perspective isn’t one we should trust. Maybe she is faking her thoughts.
Or at least borrowing them. Kaufman’s dialogue is larded with passages that sound like quotations, only a few of them attributed. Jake helpfully — or pompously — informs Lucy when he’s quoting Oscar Wilde or David Foster Wallace. But at other moments, you may find yourself tempted to pause the movie (which is streaming on Netflix) so you can Google what you just heard, thus discovering (for example) that Lucy’s lengthy, wised-up critique of John Cassavetes’s “A Woman Under the Influence” is lifted verbatim from Pauline Kael’s review of that movie. A visual clue of sorts has been provided by the appearance in an earlier scene of a copy of Kael’s collection “For Keeps.” The weird thing is that the “Woman Under the Influence” review doesn’t appear in the book.
An annotated version of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” might be nice to have, though it might also undermine the sense of knowingness that is both one of the film’s minor pleasures and one of its major provocations. Jake, who is defensive about David Foster Wallace and oblivious to the rapeyness of the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” is a guy with a clear need to know, explain and control things.
He’s proud of how smart he is, though also a little ashamed that he won a medal in school for “diligence” rather than “acumen.” (His mother couldn’t be prouder.) When Lucy makes an offhand reference to Mussolini making the trains run on time, Jake is quick to point out that improvements in Italian rail service actually predated the fascist dictatorship. His behavior toward her — his moodiness, his evasive answers to her questions, his passive-aggressive efforts to shut her down — is increasingly alarming, even as it is also the most consistently realistic aspect of the film.
Much of the second half takes place against the backdrop of a howling nighttime blizzard, an almost too-perfect metaphor. “Anomalisa” partly camouflaged its melancholy cynicism in the absurdist whimsy of R-rated stop-motion animation. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” has some of its own flights of inventiveness and fantasy — a ballet sequence, a satirical poke at Robert Zemeckis, a couple of songs from “Oklahoma,” a curious homage to “A Beautiful Mind”— but they always land in the same dark and lonely place.
That place is at once vividly cinematic — this is Kaufman’s most assured and daring work so far as a director — and deeply suspicious of the power of movies to infect our minds with meretricious and misleading ideas. Both Jake and Lucy at times share this suspicion, and both of them can be seen as victims of the art form that has summoned them into being. Plemons and especially Buckley play this somewhat abstract conundrum for real existential stakes, either tricking you into caring about them or sincerely expressing the need to be cared about.
I was sometimes puzzled and sometimes annoyed by their story, and by the other possible stories in which they are embedded, but I was also moved. More evidence that I’m a hack, for sure, but who am I to argue?
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Rated R. Baby, you’ll freeze out there. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes. Watch on Netflix.