Charlie Kaufman’s surreal and heartsick film “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” based on the 2016 novel by Iain Reed, was handily one of the best films of 2020. Intellectually burning and pathetically self-involved — by design — “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” takes place in a psychological dreamscape where reality is mutable and every character appears to be representative of an oblique Jungian archetype. The lead character, played by Jessie Buckley, is only credited as “Young Woman,” and throughout the film, she is called Lucia, Louisa, Lucy, and Ames. Her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) is a distant and vague figure in her life. Jake, it will eventually be revealed, might have been imagining Young Woman throughout the entire film. She is likely a symbol in his mind. That even an imagined girlfriend hates him and is thinking of ending things surely says a lot about Jake and his psyche.
As a filmmaker, Kaufman makes films in what might be called cinematic psychological realism. Like his “Synecdoche, New York” from 2008, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” tells its story from inside, looking out. The world looks like it does from the subconscious, revealing an emotional honesty that, to Kaufman, is most assuredly embarrassing. Memory is not linear, feelings of fear and guilt and depression can strike unexpectedly like an unseen predator, and the people in our lives come to represent parts of ourselves.
As such, a clear explanation of the ending of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” will not come with a staggering amount of clarity, and cannot be definitive. Instead, one can only don their cap of semiotics expertise and start sifting.
Young Woman has been dating Jake for a mere seven weeks but is thinking of ending things. Whether this “ending” refers merely to their relationship or something much darker, Charlie Kaufman leaves unclear. Regardless, the Jessie Buckley character is in a very dark place. They are taking a long drive to a remote farmhouse to meet Jake’s parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette). The ages, names, and occupations of Jake’s parents will change throughout Young Woman’s encounter with them. The film will eventually end with a drive away from home, a brief visit to a fast food stand, and a climax at Jake’s old high school. Periodically throughout “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” an elderly janitor (Guy Boyd) will sweep out the hallways of said high school, watching movies on TV alone and seeing teenagers rehearse for a production of “Oklahoma!”
A visit to Jake’s bedroom during the parent sequences will offer audiences their first clue.
Throughout “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Buckley and Jesse Plemons have distantly bitter conversations about poetry and movies. Jake recites a William Wordsworth poem in the car. The poem is “Ode: Imitations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” published in 1804 and 1807. Jake, it seems, is seeking immortality through memories. Later on, the pair has a conversation about John Cassavetes’ 1974 classic “A Woman Under the Influence” and Young Woman will recite Pauline Kael’s review of the film verbatim. If one looks closely at the books and movies in Jake’s childhood bedroom, one can see that all the poems, reviews, and film references are from the media he owned as a teen. Jake, like so many of us, has constructed his life around the media he has consumed.
Charlie Kaufman seems to feel that such media-based self-definition — the milieu of both Gen-X and Millennials — is a meaningless and somewhat pathetic endeavor, using Jake as his avatar. No wonder Jessie Buckley wants to end things. Jesse Plemons has no character of his own — It’s all borrowed. The self-perceived dangers of dating Jake become clear in an eerie scene where the central couple stops at a remote ice cream stand in the middle of the night, where the employees tell Young Woman that they are frightened for her.
The film ends in the above-mentioned janitor’s high school and takes place in a dreamlike haze where time has seemingly vanished. The Buckley character, audiences can now be certain, is merely symbolic.
She sees Jake go into the high school, and follows. Inside, she meets the janitor and has seemingly forgotten what Jake looked like. Indeed, she reveals that she only met Jake once and that he stared at her in a really gross kind of way. Jake, it seems, was spending the entirety of the film imagining a relationship he might have had with a woman he met once. He is such a damaged and self-pitying character, however, even his imaginary relationship is broken and sad. No one, he imagines, would have a healthy relationship with him and would be thinking of ending things after only a few weeks. The Buckley character essentially vanishes from the film at this point.
And, with only a few minutes left in its runtime, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” shifts identities a second time. Up until this point, the film seemingly took place in the mind of Jake, but few notable reveals show that “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” was actually told from the perspective … of the janitor.
Follow closely. The shifts come rapidly.
Jake, being an avatar for Charlie Kaufman, is orchestrating two possible outside perspectives on himself, giving voice to his own superego. One is the perspective of a girlfriend he never had. The other is how a janitor at his high school might have seen him. Jake transforms into a young student rehearsing for “Oklahoma!” and is seen by the janitor as being full of potential.
Jake — in the janitor’s mind — will grow up to accept the Nobel Prize, a scene dramatized on the high school stage (but in pantomime; the makeup is high school-level age lines). For the janitor — now the film’s protagonist — the students he sees every day are to grow up into singing, emotional, Nobel Prize winners. As the janitor imagines, Jake’s fantasies are kind of coming true.
The janitor himself, meanwhile, is largely ignored. He is wallpaper to his students. He gets to observe glorious youthful dances of potential energy, safely invisible. One of the final moments of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is of a fetid pig carcass being eaten by maggots. The carcass stands upright and talks. “Someone has to be the pig infested with maggots,” it says. Someone has to be disgusting and/or ignored. The janitor’s life is deferred. Jake’s life is pathetic. The Young Woman’s life may not even be real.
As the pig says, “Everything is the same when you look close enough.”
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is very much about pathos, and how hope is a rare, imagined treat. Comfort is an indulgence and nostalgia is unreliable. Intellectualism is an effect, and potential must necessarily be squandered.
It’s also exhilarating, honest, true, and — in dreaming of a hopeful future — possibly optimistic.