Following my experience during “Tenet” a few days ago, I figured I wouldn’t run into another movie this year that confused me more than whatever beautiful disaster Nolan designed.
Enter writer/director Charlie Kauffman, the man who wrote brain teasers like “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” delivering his own twists and turns to Ian Reid’s 2016 bestselling horror/thriller novel — and once again, I was proven totally wrong.
“Things” is a story that revolves around the experiences of an unnamed woman — played by newcomer Jessie Buckley (“Chernobyl”) — as she contemplates ending the relationship with her boyfriend Jake on the way to his family dinner for the first time. Jake, played by “Friday Night Lights” and “Breaking Bad” alum Jesse Plemons, seems to have an unusually close level of knowledge involving her interests — ranging from topics like poetry and landscape artwork, to even biological research, in the few short minutes of driving across the snow-covered terrain.
Bizarrely interspersed with footage of an elderly janitor cleaning high school hallways in the middle of the night, both the woman — whose name changes multiple times in the first few minutes alone — and Jake’s personalities seem to variate just as quickly as we understand them. Viewers are subject to a number of narrative inconsistencies that make increasingly little sense as the trip unfolds, and this high level of confusion is, unfortunately, is only the beginning.
When the couple finally arrives, they’re slowly, and very unnervingly, greeted by his parents — perfectly cast in all of their disturbing and eccentric glory by Toni Collete (“Hereditary,” “The Sixth Sense”) and David Thewlis (“Harry Potter,” “Wonder Woman”), both of whom only expand upon the baffling nature of the film. Mother and father are just as awkward as their son, sharing and knowing bizarre details that make both he and the woman increasingly uncomfortable throughout dinner conversation until things truly take a turn for the stranger.
Soon enough, the surrealism we’ve come to expect from Kauffman is fully unleashed — as the concept of aging quite literally comes to the forefront once Jake’s parents both experience physical changes that cause anyone who was trying to understand what was happening on the surface to give up completely. The rest of the film continues in this crazy manner, leading up to a wild twist that can only be described through close analysis and (some) YouTube breakdowns.
Man — I’ve really been getting my money’s worth in free therapy treatments this week.
While I won’t pretend to know like I can fully understand what’s happening in “Things” from a metafictional perspective, I do recognize that the performances put on by the lead cast members are some of the most impressive I’ve seen in 2020. Buckley, who rose to prominence in 2019’s “Chernobyl” and is set to make another giant television appearance later this month with “Fargo”, simultaneously operates as several different characters and excels at each one of them throughout the film — at times reciting verses of melancholic 18th century poetry with such great vigor one could only assume her character was truly a burgeoning writer, at other moments adopting various inflections and changes of tenor so shockingly well viewers will hardly believe this is the same woman who enters the film immediately in the opening frame.
She creates subtle distinctions in each new transformation that I believe very few other actresses could pull off, coupling well with Plemons’ refined performance as a man who only hints at the full extent of his troubling mental issues. Neither lead is a household name quite yet, but I would put money on the fact these roles could be the tipping point they need to become such very soon. The unsettling communication they share consistently builds like a panic attack just waiting to happen, and when the big final reveal arrives — it makes you recognize the level to which Kauffman has made you question what is real and what is not.
Execution aside, intricate camera choices thrust this harrowing story ahead and still keep audiences in the dark – this time in a rewarding and not (ahem) vague manner like those running rampant over “Tenet”. The deliberate, slowly-shifting cinematography of Lukasz Żal (“Cold War”) works to make the observer believe they are watching a disturbed landscape painting come to life - sometimes persisting on inconspicuous objects lying around the house before jumping to one of the characters’ newer and more bizarre transformations, other times breaking the fourth wall as both leads begin speaking directly to the camera and seemingly recognize they’re trapped inside whatever kind of hellscape Kauffman has composed for us.
Żal’s usage of baffling tracking shots and omniscient perspective dreamily compliment the complicated narrative structure of the film, reminding me of some of David Lynch’s most bewildering work and making me feel like someone was filming me from behind the couch. With Kauffman we can never be fully certain though, so I won’t put it out of the possibility.
Should viewers treat themselves to a self-imposed anxiety with “Things?” That’s a complex question, especially as I wrack my own brain trying to figure out what the hell I just watched.
Some of the more horror-driven elements that drove the pulse-pounding nature of Reid’s novel are lost in this adaptation, many of which I believe should have been included to make the film have more than a niche appeal beyond thriller fans or lovers of Kauffman’s previous work. This movie is a subtextual nightmare and difficult to access in far more ways than just one, and had we been treated to a bit more resolution in the finale would be one of my favorites of this year.
Regardless of whether or not jump scares are missing, I’ll remain haunted and strangely entranced by the psychological journey we take alongside the marvelous performances from Buckley & Plemons – a winding road that didn’t go where I expected, and viewers won’t either.
You can find “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” streaming on Netflix right now.