Charlie Kaufman knows how to mess with your head.
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It’s no secret that Charlie Kaufman is a genius. From Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Being John Malkovich, we’ve seen the inner workings of Kaufman’s mind through the profound and intelligent movies he’s written and directed so far. After a small hiatus following the release of Anomalisa, fans wondered how his new September 2020 Netflix release would compare to past victories. So allow me, an average college kid who just likes movies, to try and explain the complexities of Kaufman’s latest psychological thriller.
Spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned.
Based on the novel written by Iain Reid, the movie essentially tells the story of a young woman who goes on a road trip alongside her recently official boyfriend, Jake. The two are going to meet his parents for the first time at their isolated farmhouse. However, despite the simple synopsis, it’s a lot to unpack.
I’ll preface this by saying that I had to watch this not once, but twice, and will most likely revisit it again. It’s not an easy watch by any means, so if you’re in the mood for casual viewing, maybe save this for a rainy day.
In the wise words of Toni Collette, who plays the mother, “It's so fucking hard to talk about. I'm gonna start again.”
The opening scene gives us a weighted monologue from Jessie Buckley, who plays the girlfriend, “Lucy”. In it, we get the sense that she’s not all that confident about her new relationship. She doesn’t know when this uncertainty crept in, but it’s undoubtedly there. She’s thinking of ending things, and we hear this line repeated throughout Act I.
She does admit, however, that she and Jake have a ‘rare and intense attachment’ which is odd for a new relationship. In this scene, we’re also introduced to brief shots of a high school janitor, going about his daily routine. It’ll come together, I promise.
Jake picks her up, and thus begins this complex journey. There’s an overwhelming feeling that Jake can hear her inner thoughts. This is the first indication that Jessie Buckley’s character isn’t actually real. (More on that later).
During the ride, she reads an original poem. By the end of the recitation, she’s staring into the camera — right through us.
When they arrive at the house, Jake insists that they walk around outside first. They enter a barn and see a pile of ash. He tells her that they left the pigs alone for a couple of days, and when they returned to check on them, they were being eaten from the inside by maggots. On that note, they go inside.
She notes that this home reminds her of the one she grew up in. When the parents finally come downstairs after an awkward amount of waiting, they share a meal.
Throughout this meal, there’s a sense of mania from the mother, eager to please. The father is rough and hard to impress. And Jake is frustrated with how the evening is unraveling, yelling at his mother and father. If things weren’t uneasy before, they surely are now. It’s also evident that their family dynamic is complicated with an undeniable tension.
Throughout this dinner, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the girlfriend is a figment of Jake’s imagination. Her profession and passions change multiple times throughout the night. She’s never given an official name, as it fluctuates between Lucy, Louisa, Yvonne and more. The story of how they met is also up for debate. Lucy is merely whoever Jake wants her to be in the moment. She represents all of Jake’s regrets, all the accomplishments he wished he had achieved.
He paints himself as a progressive and idealized modern boyfriend but is inherently the opposite based off of how he controls this fantasy alone. Lucy is the vessel for narration purposes, but Jake is our main character.
When she walks upstairs, it’s as if she has entered a different point in time. The parents are incredibly old and suffering from an unspecified illness, possibly dementia or Alzheimer’s. In Jake’s childhood bedroom, we see the ashes from the dog downstairs and a book of poetry featuring Lucy’s original piece, which is now clearly not original at all.
She begins to become very insistent on leaving and wants to go home. It’s genuinely too much to bear. She has seen this family through every stage of their lives in a single night, and it’s painfully human.
If there was an identifiable theme in this movie, it’s the passage of time and the inexplicable terror that is aging. We also get the sense that in real life, Jake had to watch his parents creep closer to death all on his own.
As they finally depart and head back home, Jake wants to stop for ice cream at Tulsey Town. In the middle of a blizzard. Anyways. The girls working are clearly the girls that we’ve seen in clips of the high school.
Two of them are incredibly pretty, but also mock and tease Jake. The other is meant to appear average. She remarks that there is a certain coldness that comes with a certain kind of pretty, and we’re meant to understand that this is how Jake feels. It’s also partly revealed that Jake is the janitor.
They each take a bite of their Oreo blizzards and decide that they want to throw them out. Jake thinks throwing them out at his old high school is a good idea. Lucy is opposed, but then again, Lucy has no control.
They arrive at the school and Jake disappears into the hallways, forcing Lucy to get out of the car and go searching for him.
As she gets out, she sees a pile of Blizzards overflowing from the trash can. This shows us that this entire night is a mental and physical routine that the janitor has played out in his head for many years.
The janitor and Lucy come face to face, and he has a moment of growth where he lets her speak. She says she can’t explain what her Jake looks like because in reality, she saw the creep in a bar once and never saw him again.
This is the truth.
A fantasy-fueled dance scene breaks out where the janitor kills the idealized dream he created. He’s left with the bitter parts of his existence. He locks himself in his car and ends his life.
He then follows a cartoon, maggot-infested pig into the afterlife, which I guess, isn’t all that bad(?)
Is there a clear message or theme in I’m Thinking of Ending Things ?
Not really. More so, an introduction of countless ideas that we’re left to conspire with. It’s a deeply human depiction of aging, death, regret, projection and more. Maybe you’ll come up with something different than me, but that’s the beauty of it. Kaufman denies us answers but confronts us with possibility.
Madeline Murphy is an Online Writer at Rowdy Magazine. She’s currently studying Journalism with a minor in Women’s Studies. Madeline can be found making Apple Music playlists, trying Nigella Lawson recipes and binging SATC. She’s fiercely passionate about social justice and the power of words. Her Instagram is @maduhlinemurphy