By David Renshaw
New to Netflix this week is Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. The film is Kaufman’s first solo directorial title in over a decade and the filmmaker, famed for his work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, is on typically esoteric form. As with everything Kaufman does, I’m Thinking of Ending Things operates both physically but also mentally; taking us inside the characters’ heads as much as showing a straightforward version of events.
Based on Iain Reid’s compelling and dream-like 2016 debut novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things focuses on a young couple; Jake, played by Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley’s “Young Woman” (as she is listed in the credits). It is Buckley’s character who wants to end the relationship, which we learn early on is only about seven weeks old. Despite her reservations about their future she chooses to accompany Jake to his parents farm house.
The film is built around a series of long, dialogue heavy scenes set on the journey to the farm and in the farm house itself. The narrative of the couple is also intertwined with that of an unnamed elderly high school janitor whose lonely existence we view from afar. It sounds simple enough yet the ground is constantly moving throughout I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Kaufman recently talked about the open-ended nature of his work in an interview with Variety. “I think the way to approach one’s work is to put it out in the world and let it do what it does,” he said. “So if people want to call it a mindf**k or say I’m weird, that’s their prerogative. But it’s not my intent,” he explained.
Spoilers, in as much as they exist for this film exist, follow. So don’t read on if you haven’t seen I’m Thinking Of Ending Things.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things begins with Jake and the Young Woman travelling by car to his parents’ farmhouse. She is distracted by a series of phone calls throughout the journey as well as the persistent thought: “I’m thinking of ending things.” It’s running through her head so loudly she is convinced Jake can hear it too. Though her mind is elsewhere the couple discuss her poetry writing, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and the myth that Mussolini made the trains run on time as they make their way out of the city and towards their rural destination. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the high school janitor (Guy Boyd) as he makes his way through his daily tasks. The kids at the school make fun of him and he cuts a lonely figure as he scrubs the halls and watches on during rehearsals for an amateur high school performance.
The snow is coming down hard as Jake and the Young Woman arrive at the farmhouse. Jake doesn’t immediately feel like going indoors and gives his girlfriend a tour of the farm’s barn where he shows her sheep and the pen were they once kept pigs. Once inside the house the Young Woman is finally introduced to Jake’s parents. Unlike their erudite and intellectual son, Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) “like pictures where you know what you’re looking at.” The air in the scene is slowly withdrawn as the Young Woman’s first meeting with the parents stumbles over misunderstandings like whether or not a painting can be seen as sad if it doesn’t have a sad person in it. While this is going on at the farmhouse we see the Janitor taking time out from his job to watch a cheesy rom-com in which a man declares his love for a woman in an all-American diner. If only all relationships were that simple.
Over pudding, a delicious looking yule log, Jake’s mother discusses her struggles with tinnitus while the Young Woman screens multiple calls from someone called Yvonne. The nature of memory and how we perceive things is called into question throughout the couple’s time in the farmhouse with Jake’s parents’ visibility ageing up and down from one minute to the next. It’s a mind-bending exercise that, in true Kaufman style, is never mentioned by any of the characters.
Up in Jake’s bedroom the Young Woman sees Jake’s teenage interests, a hefty book by famed movie critic Pauline Kael stands out as, too, does a book containing the poem the Young Woman recited to him in the car ride out. The Pauline Kael book is put in context in the next scene as the couple head home, driving through the treacherous blizzard and away from Jake’s oddball parents. They get to talking about the John Cassevetes film A Woman Under The Influence and the Young Woman recites Kael’s disparaging review of the movie at length. The parallels between a cinematic breakdown and the same one we’re witnessing is made clear, even if Kael felt the 1974 classic offered a “romanticized conception of insanity.” Is that how Kaufman feels about the Young Woman?
Jake stresses the need to make a detour and insists that they stop off for ice cream (yes, in a blizzard) but the move soon proves to have been a mistake as they begin to melt and Jake is left looking for a place to dispose of the frozen treats. This takes the couple on another detour, much to the Young Woman’s frustration, and they arrive at an abandoned school. In keeping with the loose nature of the film, they first debate the problematic nature of Christmas classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Jake feels it is innocent enough, she is less convinced.
Outside the school the Young Woman comes face to face with the Janitor, uniting the two separate strands of the film for the first time. It’s here that the film truly takes off from any grounding in reality as a pair of dancers (played by New York City Ballet members Ryan Steele and Unity Phelan) perform two pieces from Oklahoma! This seven-minute sequence culminates with the Janitor stabbing the male dancer in the chest and leaving him for dead. Stripped naked and now accompanied by an animated pig, the janitor makes his way through the same school halls he scrubbed clean as the film comes to a bizarre yet moving end with a now elderly Jake singing Oklahoma! song “Lonely Room” to a rapt audience.
Confused? You’re not the only one. There isn’t a trick to understanding I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Kaufman isn’t explicit in his metaphors or imagery, preferring a more thought provoking experience than a prescriptive one. The themes that do leap out here include the faulty nature of memory and how the mind and body don’t necessarily age at the same pace. “Do we move through time, or does time move through us?” the Young Woman pertinently asks at one point.
There are also ruminations on how much we turn to other people for our own opinions and the effort we put into judging ourselves. This is all thrown into the mix for an experience that almost begs for repeat viewings. Your energy for such an undertaking may, understandably, vary for that exercise but stepping back into the blizzard might be the only way to find what you need in this mind-melding epic.