How best to describe I’m Thinking of Ending Things? The easy answer is that it’s a Charlie Kaufman film. (He both writes and directs.) His scripts (cf. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Synecdoche, New York) are always mind games (not only for the audience, but for the characters as well). He leads us through a twisted perception of reality. He challenges us to think about what identity means. He challenges us to think about what reality means. He challenges us to think about what life means. I would categorize him as an existentialist, but one who might befuddle Jean-Paul Sartre.
The story centers on a young woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) on a road trip to his childhood home to introduce her to his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). The young woman (in voice over) speaks of a thought in her mind of ending things—specifically, her relationship with Jake, which she thinks is going nowhere. As they drive through the snow, they talk about many things, sometimes in great depth.
Perhaps you’ve noticed I haven’t told you the young woman’s name. It keeps changing. At various times she is called Lucy, Louisa, Lucia, and possible Amy. Her clothes change from time to time as well. And she is studying painting, quantum psychics (or physics), neurology, and/or genealogy. The disjointedness of her identity is just one part of the intentional confusion of the film. The young woman also sees the characters at different times of their lives. There is a bit of a dream/nightmare quality to what the young woman is experiencing.
As all of this plays out on the road, at the house, and on the road again going home, the discussions touch on poetry, musical theater, physics, cinematic history and criticism, and David Foster Wallace. People deliver very long quotations from a wide range of sources. And finally, we arrive at an empty school in the midst of a blizzard where we see a pas-de-deux based on Oklahoma in the hallways while the janitor (is it an old age Jake?) cleans the floors.
Yes, that is a lot of input for a film. There are lots of moving parts in this invention. If I were to try to look at this film in depth, it would require a dozen or so viewings, plus various trips to the library to search out some of the quotations and people who are mentioned or alluded to. It would end up a term paper (or maybe a dissertation) with several chapters. But of course, most of us won’t be going down that rabbit hole. Instead we can just enjoy the rabbit hole that is this film.
Like I said, it’s a Charlie Kaufman film. We know going in that things will get strange—that we may not know what is really happening. And what we experiencing and how we interpret what is happening is really what Kaufman is trying to get at. Our reactions are the real point of watching a film such as this. Our perceptions, our feelings, our sense of self are really what this film is ultimately about.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available on Netflix.