There isn't a writer-director who presents a stronger argument for the value of treating film as a collaborative medium than Charlie Kaufman. He is an unmistakable authorial voice: his films all hinge on the existential fear of being lonely and unloved; they almost all involve complicated manipulations of reality, subjectivity, and narrative chronology; they all involve people having awkwardly well-read, verbose conversations about philosophy and art, like if Woody Allen's characters all had depression instead of anxiety. You can absolutely tell a Kaufman script just from a handful of lines of dialogue.

But, there is a profound difference between the films he only wrote - mainly Being John Malkovich from 1999, Adaptation. from 2002, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind from 2004* - and the films he also directed: Synecdoche, New York in 2008, Anomalisa in 2015, and now I'm Thinking of Ending Things. The first batch of films are melancholy and pensive, but they are also playful, energetic, and even a little bit joyous in finding exciting, fresh cinematic means of expressing their characters' inner lives. The second batch are, taken as whole, quite possibly the most lugubrious, heavy, and just plain all-around glum body of films made in the 21st Century. They are obsessed with mortality and existential suffering to the point that even their formal and structural ingenuity (and they are all three of them very ingenious films) feels less like creativity and more like one more crushing obligation to fight through before we're finally able to die, which is both the most longed-for and most feared of all outcomes in the Kaufmanverse.

Not only could I easily have written exactly that same paragraph about either of Kaufman's other directorial efforts, I did write it. But as long as Kaufman insists on making the same damn movie every time he sits in the director's chair, I will not feel guilty about writing the same damn review. I mean, of course it's not "the same" the same. In I'm Thinking of Ending Things - adapted from a 2016 novel by Iain Reid, making this Kaufman's first non-original work since 2002 - Kaufman makes his first more-or-less horror movie: the "more" is because of the tropes he's drawing from, the "less" is because it seems at least somewhat embarrassed to be caught doing genre, and so remains firmly ensconced in an arch, literary register, even when it appears to be going through motions of setting up scares. It's also shot in the squarish 1.33:1 aspect ratio, even getting 1.33:1 specialist Łukasz Żal (of Ida and Cold War) to serve as cinematographer. This turns out to be the perfect visual analogue to Kaufman's constricting, airless world: most of the compositions are uncomfortably imbalanced to either the top or bottom (I assume this is intentional), leaving ugly, awkward gulfs of negative space that exactly track the main character's feeling of being in the wrong place with the wrong people. It is certainly not my favorite of Żal's work, and the "ah, you see it's ugly on purpose" card is one I am reluctant to play. But it's doing something, anyways.

The film's story concerns a relatively new couple: the woman (Jessie Buckley) is our point of identification, ushering us into the first shot on a bit of prosy voiceover that begins by announcing, as advertised, "I'm thinking of ending things". And she's referring to her several-weeks-old relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemons), though if your first response to hearing that phrase is to imagine that she's contemplating suicide, you're very much on the wavelength the film (and I imagine the book as well) want you to be on. Jake and the lady - her name is first given as Lucy, but one of the big things in the film is that she keeps getting new ones, and they get farther from "Lucy" as the movie goes on - are going deep into the countryside to meet his parents (Toni Collette & David Thewlis), the first big We Are An Official Couple thing they've done, which is perfect timing given that "Lucy" is pretty sure that things are stalling out. This will remain a primary concern to her even once the trip to Jake's parents' place turns into an unstable mindfuck of dream logic, where with seemingly every change of room, the age and health of the parents has changed, as has the story of how Jake and his girlfriend met, as have fundamental details of her personality and biography.

This doesn't not work. It's pretty much a David Lynch knock-off, capturing something of the slipperiness and perpetually unraveling reality of the last third Mulholland Dr., albeit with much more effort than Lynch takes to create these fluid dreamworlds. But at least it gives us a model to compare the film to, and as psychological horror films about reality unspooling around a psychologically unstable protagonists go, it's functional. Hell, just in 2020, we already had You Should Have Left, and I'm Thinking of Ending Things is definitely better than that, at first.

Kaufman isn't really looking to do a horror film, though, so even when it's relatively simple to parse the movie as horror, I don't think it works on that level, really. It's always more about being a relationship drama, one heavy with elaborate dialogue and over-articulated intellectual reference points and a general sense of miserably lonely dismalness. Buckley and Plemons certainly do their best work to try and navigate the fraught discussions going on between the characters (Collette and Thewlis are playing gaudy caricatures in a film that has a very uncertain relationship to comedy), from the endless car ride scene that inaugurates the film onwards, but the very nature of the story means that they're playing ideas of characters more than characters per se, and Plemons especially can't do much to cope with the mechanics of how the film will end up using his character in the second half.

Ah, the second half. The film starts to go real twisty, breaking reality down to its component parts and openly daring us to keep track of how they fit together. And this is fair enough, though I'm not sure that the film has done anything like the work to make me want to put in that much work. Even in its better half, I'm Thinking of Ending Things bored me pretty witless, with its sepulchral conversations and its high-minded but still ultimately trite use of "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus"-style stereotypes; they are the stereotypes of the New York literati, rather than the stereotypes of real people (David Foster Wallace proves to be a point of contention, and one argument devolves into quoting, at monologue length, Pauline Kael's review of A Woman Under the Influence), but it's still pretty paint-by-numbers character-building. And it made me not care about either Jake or the woman long before it turns out that "Jake" and "the women" mean something else than we thought they did at first.

At any rate, I'm Thinking of Ending Things becomes awfully damn complicated and dense with different strands that contribute different pieces of dream logic and reference (there is an allusion to the musical Oklahoma! that runs essentially the entire length of the film, ending in a dream ballet that actually works pretty well), all combining to show how a desperately sad and lonely mind deals with various scraps of memory. As far as that goes, it's interesting as an intellectual exercise in working out how various things that seem like weird, unmotivated asides end up slotting into a puzzle, but it's clear long before we've even received all the clues that the solution is "dying alone and sad". And that's true even without remembering that "dying alone and sad" has been, to date, the only thing Kaufman has been really interesting in exploring as a director.

It's heavy and monotonous, in the most literal sense of having only one tone (but also in the figurative, judgmental sense of being tedious and protracted), and its themes are nihilistic in such an unimaginative, "brooding college student" way, that I have an immensely hard time caring about any of this. Especially given the unhurried 134 minutes that it takes for this to play (almost 40 minutes of which takes place in the front seat of a car). It is the kind of work that is destined to be divisive, with some people responding to its intellectual games as stimulating and disquieting, and I would not like to take that experience away from any of you who had it. I will, however, content myself to be on the other side, the kind that's dazed and reeling from the sheer onslaught of morbidity, and begging, just begging Kaufman to work with another director again, and for Chrissake, it's not like Michel Gondry is busy these days.

*I get the sense that nobody remembers 2002's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind anymore, and not enough people saw 2001's Human Nature to have remembered it in the first place.