Academy Award Winner Charlie Kaufman is oftentimes associated with complex stories that deal with the human subconscious. There’s an impressive amount of successful, Oscar-nominated (and winning) screenplays throughout the movies of Charlie Kaufman, including Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. His newest movie, which he wrote and directed, is an adaptation of the 2016 Iain Reid’s novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The movie was released in 2020 and produced by Netflix, and is a surrealist psychological thriller about memory, art, reality, and what makes us who we are.
The Netflix movie is not a walk in the park concerning how easy it is to follow the plot. The story starts simply enough with a couple that has been together for only a few months, driving to have dinner at the boyfriend’s, Jake (Jesse Plemons), parents’ (Toni Colette and David Thewlis) house. The young woman (Jessie Buckley) appears to want to end things with Jake. It is a fairly new relationship, and she keeps reminding herself that she has to end this. However, what appears to be a normal night rapidly starts to get weird.
Like most of Kaufman’s movies, this one is confusing and at various times difficult to understand. Using a lot of metaphors and imagery to convey the internal journey of a depressed character, the two hours and twenty minutes actually seem somewhat short. Here is what really happened in I’m Thinking of Ending Thingsand just what the ending of Ending means.
Who Jake Really Is
There are three main characters in the movie. Jake, his girlfriend (who changes names throughout the story: Lucy, Louisa, Lucia…), and the Janitor. There is some confusion about who is telling the story and if anything happening is even real. Let’s start with the most important element to understand the story: who is the narrator.
At first, it seems that the girlfriend will narrate what happens. However, even at the beginning of the movie, Jake somehow appears to be hearing her thoughts, and that is because he actually can. Jake is the real narrator of the story, because everything is happening inside his head. Jake is, in reality, the depressed Janitor that works in the school.
There are a few clues to this throughout I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The character mentions more than once what it was like working in the school. Lucy also finds janitor clothes in the washing machine in the basement (that she wasn’t supposed to go in). Also, when the janitor finally talks to her, she states that she can’t remember Jake, that he is someone she saw once a really long time ago.
Decay and Time
The movie has a lot of heavy central themes throughout its narrative — how the past influences who we become, the possibilities of the choices we don’t make, etc. Most of them have one element in common: time. When the characters are driving to get to Jake’s parents’ house, they see a house destroyed by a fire. Later, the same house is brand new. That was the first clue that time would influence the narrative.
Once the characters arrive at the house, the parents start to act weird and change in front of their eyes. It feels like Jake’s life is passing before the audience’s eyes. From them having dementia and dying to become their younger selves, they are shown in important moments of Jake’s life. The viewer infiltrates Jake’s past by arriving at his house and seeing all these traumatic events. They also see his bedroom and the things he cherishes the most: books and movies.
The passage of time brings to the other important element to be able to understand this movie: decay. The narrator views getting older and the moments that lead to death as completely negative things. The idea of decay, shown by the pigs getting eaten alive by maggots, symbolizes how the character is feeling about getting older or how he views the journey of aging. It can also symbolize his depression eating him alive.
The Janitor is depressed, and because of the title of the movie, it might suggest that he is contemplating ending things through suicide. That is what is happening in the book. However, the adaptation lets it be vague enough for the viewer to decide what it means.
Why Does The Girlfriend Keep Changing?
As the movie progresses, there are visible changes surrounding the girlfriend as well. Some are less extreme than others, like when she changes clothes when having dinner with Jake’s parents, while others are big, like when they are heading home again, and the actress who plays the character changes for a few moments. She’s no longer the excellent Jessie Buckley; she becomes the actress in the rom-com the Janitor was watching at the school.
These choices make the movie even harder to follow, because there is no certainty of what is happening. Her profession also changes a couple of times, as does her manner of speech. She even falls into a prolonged impersonation of Gena Rowlands when discussing Rowlands’ film A Woman Under the Influence.
Lucy is a product of Jake’s imagination. He saw her once in a bar during trivia night, and she smiled at him, but he didn’t dare talk to her. So, he picks that particular moment in his life and starts to imagine what it would be like if he talked had to her. He bases her personality, appearance, and overall self on books, movies, and plays he has consumed over the years. That is why in the beginning she says she wrote a poem, but later on, the same poem is written in a published book by Eva HD in Jake’s room. It is a commentary on projecting one idealization and ideals of what a partner/relationship should be like into a person, and how the media people watch or read influences how they perceive reality.
The Ending of I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Very simply, Jake returns to the place where he went to school and worked as a janitor. He seems to have a heart attack, or something signaling his death or suicide. Like the rest of the film, he imagines aspects of his youth (such as the ice cream stand and the pig with maggots), and then appears on-stage with the set of Oklahoma! that was performed at his school.
He is obviously aged to a great degree, representing his death, but the packed theater audience is also all horribly aged, as well. As Kaufman himself explained, “All of the people who were in the audience, with the exception of the characters from the movie, are the extras who played high school kids in the rest of the movie. So they’re all young people wearing old-age makeup.” Jake has, in effect, aged everyone in his life with him to make the process more comfortable.
He gives a speech to the audience which is directly lifted, from the dialogue to the shot composition, from the ending speech of the film A Beautiful Mind (the DVD of which was in Jake’s room). Like so many aspects of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Jake has assimilated different films and fictional stories into his own imaginary version of life. In an unhealthy way, this very lonesome, solitary man who had probably never left a small hometown radius in decades has taken fictional, cheesy media (from rom-coms to Oklahoma! to A Beautiful Mind) and turned it into his own life. The ending of I’m Thinking of Ending Things shows the danger of confusing art with reality, and how films can warp a person’s perception of the real world in disturbing, unhealthy ways.
I’m Thinking About Ending Things is a surrealist tale inside a depressed person’s mind. It is the type of movie that the viewer has to watch more than once due to the overload of information given in every scene. With heavy thematic elements, the movie is as confusing as it is deep.
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