I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an especially bleak “road trip” movie. It’s a high-brow, dialogue-driven puzzle, an exploration of the subconscious, and leads us to question reality and reflect on the direction we are going in within our own lives.
If the name Charlie Kaufman does not immediately ring a bell, you may recognize him from his filmography: the writer of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and writer-director of Synecdoche, New York starring the late Phillip Seymour-Hoffman; I’d say he has quite the resume. However, while I will admit I’m not as well-versed with his work as maybe I should be – my familiarity doesn’t extend beyond my love for Eternal Sunshine – after finishing I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I’ll certainly have to delve deeper into the mind of Kaufman, as treacherous as that could be.
Based on the Iain Reid novel of the same name, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Kaufman fully immersed in the art of introspection. The film opens up to the narration of Jessie Buckley, who gives yet another star turn (Wild Rose being the first, a fantastic film if you can get past the thick Irish accents) in the role of our protagonist whose name is ever changing, first she is Lucy, then Louisa, then Lucia, and at one point is even called Ames. In her opening dialogue, Lucy, for sake of clarity we’ll stick with one name, reflects on the dreadful decision she feels she must make: “I’m thinking of ending things” she repeats to herself.
Anyone whose been in this position knows it’s not easy, and because of this may be more inclined to stay in an unhealthy or fleeting relationship. Despite wanting to end things, Lucy never confronts her new boyfriend Jake, played by Jesse Plemons, who gives a tensely dynamic and equally awkward performance that only enhances the unease one may increasingly feel throughout the film. So, why does Lucy stay with Jake? Because it’s easier to say yes? Because she doesn’t have the energy to end things? Because Jake has all the prospective qualities a boyfriend should have? These are the things Lucy ponders as she looks out to a bleak, wintery rural landscape through the passenger-side window.
Despite her actions saying one thing, we, as the audience, have the advantage of hearing Lucy’s thoughts and know how she truly feels, and like the film later aphorizes, “you can’t fake a thought”. And that is what the first act of the film is all about, putting Jake and Lucy’s dysfunctional relationship (the claustrophobia of being in a car together only adding to the symbolism) on full display to make us reflect on the relationships we carry in our own lives, and how we may be so desperate to avoid being alone that we allow unhealthy relationships to fester – loneliness being a major recurring theme in the film, and also a timely theme as I’m sure many of us have at some point or another suffered from bits of loneliness during this seemingly everlasting pandemic.
However, while we’d assume dramatic irony with hearing Lucy’s thoughts, Jake always seems to interrupt Lucy’s line of thinking when she circles back to the idea of ending things, or he’ll ask Lucy if she’s said anything as if he heard her thoughts, making one wonder if Jake is in her head, or perhaps we’re all in Jake’s head.
This possibility that all we witness on the screen is not real only becomes more likely as the events that take place grow in surrealism, as once we arrive at Jake’s parents’ house, we witness the odd couple, excellently played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, go up and down in age, and by the third act there’s a talking pig, a dance number, and a performance of the musical number “Lonely Room” from the play, Oklahoma!; there’s also a motif of a janitor mopping the floors at a high school late one night, which the significance of these digressions eventually becomes quite clear. While the choice of including a performance of “Lonely Room” may appear rather on the nose, Kaufman never seems intent on hiding the film’s theme of loneliness, including references to David Foster Wallace and Oscar Wilde, and a recitation of Eva H.D.’s dreary poem, “Bonedog”, with even the film’s setting being rather isolated and empty out in farm country. By the time we reach the end of the film, the congruent sadness that has saturated its message suggests a new meaning for the statement “I’m thinking of ending things”, that perhaps the thing being ended isn’t a relationship at all but rather something much more dear.
After finishing up his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman discussed in interviews that he and frequent collaborator Spike Jonze were approached by Sony producer Amy Pascal to do a horror movie, and rather than be conventional he chose to create something both scary and more importantly real, and with I’m Thinking of Ending Things I believe he’s done just that more than a decade later. After all, what could be scarier than growing old and realizing you’re alone? 8/10