Charlie Kaufman has conjured up quite a few bizarre cinematic visions over the years (most notably, 1999’s Being John Malkovich, which ironically stands as the most accessible work I’ve seen from him), but if I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t his strangest film yet, it is certainly his most oblique. Released on Netflix while the streaming platform was mired in controversy, his newest film can be fittingly described as atmospheric, haunting, unpredictable, and even challenging… though perhaps the most fitting term for it is “divisive”.
Though I fully understand why not everyone has walked away intrigued or satisfied with Kaufman’s take on Reid’s much-acclaimed novel of the same name (in fact, it took me two watches to really sort out my feelings about it), this isn’t a film you can just watch once and be done with, but revisit, study, and ponder over—or, at the very least, look at someone else’s interpretation of it—in order to truly appreciate. Admittedly, this can either result in an intricate, unforgettable treasure or a smug, pretentious mess, but for me, I’m Thinking of Ending Things far and away the former.
Seeing how deceptively basic the film’s synopsis is, I can see more than a few of you begging to differ. Jesse Buckley’s character (whose name is switched around many times throughout the course of the film, but is referred to on Wikipedia as “A young woman”)—wait for it—thinks about ending things with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemmons), but still goes with him on a seemingly normal trip to his parents’ house nevertheless. What’s so confusing and hard-to-decipher about that? Quite a lot, in fact.
The first hint of weirdness comes early, when she and Jake are driving towards his childhood farm. They talk, exchange casual banter, and the scene seems to be pretty normal… only it goes on for nearly 20 minutes straight. During this entire sequence, the color of the woman’s sweater is constantly changing, Jake’s seemingly able to hear her own thoughts (when “I’m thinking of ending things” enters her mind, he immediately interjects with “Huh?”), and she recites a long, desolate poem—which she claims is of her own writing—from memory.
On top of all that, as you may have already seen in the trailer (which I wouldn’t recommend seeing if you want the film’s experience to be completely unspoiled going in—I knew virtually no information about the film before seeing it because of this, and it paid off really well), Jake’s parents turn out to be the very opposite of normal. Their behavior is erratic, unpredictable, and frequently bizarre, making dinner with them more than a bit uncomfortable. Then the food is finally finished (or not, considering how much of it’s left completely untouched as it’s taken away), and things truly take a turn for the stranger.
Once I’m Thinking of Ending Things was over, I found myself doing the same thing I did with Enemy (another strange arthouse psychological thriller I went into almost completely blind)—that is, immediately ask myself “What the @#$% is going on here?” and research a few online analyses of it. Combined with me not reviewing the film until watching it another time, this may provide sufficient “proof” for some that it’s just try-hard “artsy” nonsense…but that couldn’t be further from the truth. A great film requiring multiple viewings to fully get a grasp of (The Lighthouse*, for instance) isn’t the same thing as a load of pretentious drivel with no actual substance, no matter how much one may try to conflate the two.
In fact, even if you can’t get into its story or themes, I’m Thinking of Ending Things still has a lot to appreciate. Shot by the immensely talented Łukasz Żal (best known as the cinematographer for films like Ida, Loving Vincent, and Cold War), the film’s look is beautifully bleak, and Jay Wadley’s phenomenal score is alternately romantic, off-kilter, and thoroughly unsettling. Not a single performance is anything but stellar, but Toni Collete (as Jake’s mother) and David Thewlis (Jake’s father) arguably deliver the best ones in the entire film—in fact, Best Supporting Actor/Actress nominations for both of them wouldn’t be unjustified in the slightest.
Still, as I’ve said before, I’m Thinking of Ending Things certainly isn’t a movie for everybody, and it will strike some as ponderous or overly confusing. Even though this isn’t my favorite thing Kaufman’s done, I’m still very glad I saw it, and am now more excited than ever to see what else he has up his sleeve (my take on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is coming next [NOTE: THIS DIDN’T HAPPEN, THOUGH I STILL PLAN TO FULLY REVIEW IT IN THE FUTURE]). Hopefully, no matter what my initial feelings are, what I find there ultimately won’t disappoint.
All right, I know I owe you all a huge explanation for this review coming so ridiculously late (exactly one month after I last saw the film, in fact), and I’ll give it. The truth is, I’ve been so caught up in both my schoolwork and other life stuff as of late that it’s really distracted me from my work, which I never wanted to happen. Although I’m not getting paid a single dime for it, watching and reviewing film is something I’ve wanted to do for almost my entire life, and to see myself getting this off-track in the latter area is really just embarrassing. I should get all my remaining reviews done by the rest of the month (no, really, I’ll try my very, very best to), so sit tight!
*Granted, The Lighthouse is a far more accessible and—dare I say it?—crowd-pleasing film than I’m Thinking of Ending Things could ever hope to be, but it still has more than enough reality-blurring, up-to-interpretation sequences to fall under that same category. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a better introduction to arthouse horror than that particular film, so if you want to know if the genre’s for you, that’s (probably) the one to go for.
[MAJOR SPOILERS] At this point, there are more than a few excellent analyses on YouTube and such (particularly the one at the very bottom of this review), so I won’t go over every single symbolic and/or metaphorical detail in the film. Even so, there are a few things in that area I’d still like to touch on, just for the sake of getting them out of my head:
Yes, Jake and the janitor are the same person, yes, the young woman doesn’t actually exist (in real life, she was somebody Jake spotted somewhere, but never worked up the courage to even talk to), and yes, most of the film’s entire plot is happening within his head. Let’s just get that out of the way first, so things don’t get confusing later… and so I can point out how ironically similar it is to Donald Kaufman’s screenplay for The 3 in Adaptation. Funny how that works.
Anyway, since I didn’t notice the woman’s clothing changes, had enough information about the film to know why Jake seemingly had telepathic abilities, or even understood the significance of what they were talking about, I assumed that the driving/talking sequences being so long was merely due to poor pacing. Upon paying closer attention to them on my second watch, and realizing that they were actually the janitor’s own thoughts bouncing around his head (particularly his ever-pervasive struggles with self-hatred and suicidal thoughts), they became far more interesting to me, as did the repeated references to the musical Oklahoma!
Speaking of musicals, let’s talk about that seemingly random dream ballet that happens towards the very end. Personally, I think it’s an obvious metaphor for the janitor daydreaming about marrying this particular woman, then his self-hatred interrupting and, before long, completely destroying this particular fantasy. This happens after the woman finally reveals to the janitor that she never even met Jake in real life, so it only makes sense that he would cling to a few last threads of hope by conjuring up that scenario in his head.
The janitor’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech at the end, when he’s in the afterlife after finally committing suicide, is directly inspired by the acceptance speech at the ending of the biographical drama A Beautiful Mind—which, despite that particular scene probably being one of that film’s most famous moments, never actually happened in real life.
That only makes this conclusion more perfect, as it illustrates just how much of a fantasy Jake’s hopes and dreams—namely, his parents (who he clearly never had good relations with, and even seemed to hold a grudge to his entire life) loving and accepting him for who he truly was, and a random woman he never even met spending the rest of her life with him—really were.
Besides lashing out at his folks and getting mad over the smallest of things (the ice cream sundaes he and the woman picked up from the roadside shop possibly staining his precious car, for instance), he’s never shown to be a particularly bad person, which only makes me feel even more sad for him in this area. That doesn’t make the film seem mean-spirited or anything, but yeah, it’s not very uplifting viewing. That’s what Kaufman was going for, though, and I respect him for making such a depressing concept so surprisingly compelling and insightful.