“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” 2020, directed by Charlie Kaufman — 4.5/5 Stars
Kaufman’s work has never been particularly easy to understand. Those familiar with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “Synecdoche, New York” will know how Kaufman’s writing can produce an eerie, dreamlike feeling that forces the viewer to ruminate on their own state of being, constantly pushing the envelope on what it will take to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” elevates that tone to a new level, and while it keeps many suspenseful elements of Iain Reid’s original novel, it ultimately becomes a more meditative experience on aging, death and existence. Fair warning, full spoilers ahead.
The film opens with narration from our main character, who I’ll call Lucy, despite her being given more than a few names over the course of the runtime. As one might expect from the film’s title, Lucy is thinking of ending things. She likes her boyfriend Jake, but she just knows something isn’t going to work. All the same, she’s going to meet his parents at their farmhouse in what seems like the middle of nowhere. The two of them drive on a perfectly straight road, discussing Lucy’s interests, which constantly seem to shift from poetry, to astrophysics, to painting and to biology. In what’s arguably the climax of the scene, Lucy looks directly at the camera as she recites a poem titled “Bonedog.” This poem acts as a narrative set piece later in the film, but it also sets the tone for the film as a whole. Both the poem and the movie are, in a lot of ways, about how it feels to be lonely. That loneliness seeps into everything in the story, from Jake’s home and his parents to his dead dog, Jimmy.
Instead of attentively following every second of the film and trying to analyze it piece by piece, it may be beneficial to watch it in the same way you might read a poem: as a flowing, disconnected but cohesive work of consciousness, telling the story of one man’s thoughts.
Viewers later discover this story is the figment of one man’s imagination: a high school janitor, who maybe had some high aspirations, but never achieved anything he was proud of. Instead, he just cleans and is alone with his own thoughts as he approaches death. Jake, in this story, is the closest thing to the janitor’s manifestation of himself. This conclusion explains many things, including the constant references to other media like David Foster Wallace’s essays, Anna Kavan’s novel “Ice” and John Cassavete’s 1974 film “Woman Under the Influence.” These works act as points of reference for the audience, as a sort of meta-commentary on “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” in itself but are also expressions of the unnamed janitor’s subconscious, who has constructed this story based on culture he has taken in over the course of his long life.
While the end answers some questions, there’s still a lot the film doesn’t want you to “get” about it. It’s confusing and disorienting; characters dramatically change ages from scene to scene, strange things happen that go completely unaddressed and conversations are hard to follow. There is a lot that cannot be discussed in one short review, like the films preoccupation with consent — such as one particular scene in which characters argue about the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — or what the deal was with that animated maggot pig. Even with an explanation of “why,” there’s still a lot of questions about “what” and “how” that invested viewers will dig around for on subsequent watches.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is not for everyone. Some may be inclined to throw up their hands up and say, “I give up,” and that’s okay; the purpose of the work can get lost in what often comes off as extreme pretentiousness and self-obsession. That being said, a deeper meaning can be found if you allow yourself to search for it, and Kaufman has never made it more fun.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” with stars Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette and David Thewlis can be watched right now on Netflix.