“I’m thinking of ending things,” a young woman tells us in a raspy whisper. The thought is lodged in her mind like an uninvited guest. She wonders, did someone plant it? Has it always been there? “Sometimes the thought is closer to the truth,” Jake, her boyfriend of six, maybe seven weeks, once told her. He thinks, “You can’t fake a thought.” If so, maybe this thought isn’t as unwelcome as she claims. But what exactly is she thinking of ending? Her life? Her relationship with Jake?
We see Jake’s childhood home, old and dreary, during the young woman’s voice over. Eerie music plays, creating a sense of dread. We then see the young woman standing outside her apartment. Wearing a yellow scarf and a red peacoat, she sticks her tongue out to taste the snow. She’s waiting for Jake to pick her up. They’re going to visit his parents even though she’s unsure of the relationship. She looks up at her apartment building. The camera cuts to a man staring outside his window. His voice interrupts her inner monologue, but he’s cut off after only a few words, and then we’re back with the young woman again.
The young woman’s mood has changed, concern and confusion color her face. Could she hear what he’s saying? It’s confounding, but you move on as she does when Jake arrives. The camera returns to the same room though. The man is younger this time. He’s in different clothes, but in the same position by the window. He completes the older man’s cut off thought. Are they the same person? The young woman hops into Jake’s car and expresses her excitement over the snow. The two share a quick kiss and begin their road trip.
Those are just the first few minutes, and there’s already a lot to unpack.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS is an adaption of Iain Reid’s 2016 debut novel of the same name. The story seems straightforward enough: A young woman goes to meet her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. It could be the plot of a romantic comedy, scratch that, it has been the plot of a romantic comedy, one too many times. Those familiar with its writer and director, Charlie Kaufman, whose previous work includes Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, however, won’t be surprised to find what’s seemingly simple on the surface is actually far more complex.
The movie is a puzzle someone keeps adding more pieces to. Pieces that don’t appear to fit in with the others. But Kaufman, who has made a career out of the inner workings of the brain, hasn’t made the movie complicated just because he can. It’s bewildering because humans are. It’s an intricate labyrinth because the mind so often is. Here, he explores how our thoughts allow us to be the architects of fantasies, yet even then we don’t have complete control. The mind has its own ideas and these fantasies eventually come to haunt us. Early on, Jake tells his girlfriend, “It’s good to remind yourself the world’s larger than the inside of your own head.” But it’s not long before you realize the film doesn’t necessarily agree with him.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS makes you question your eyes and ears. On the road trip, Jake calls the young woman Lucy (it’s her name until they step inside the farm). They talk about musicals and movies, ideas and poetry, time and Mussolini’s train. The significance of these topics won’t be immediately clear. The duo’s conversation does illuminate their incompatibility, and it’s evident their relationship hasn’t moved beyond the superficial. We continue to hear Lucy’s musings whenever Jake isn’t interrupting, “I’m thinking of ending things,” becomes her refrain. Jake seems to pick up on her thoughts as they drive. Hints of Kaufman toying with reality become more apparent as Lucy gazes out the window. We also learn the man from earlier is a lonely janitor at a high school, where the drama students are rehearsing a song from Oklahoma!, Jake’s favorite play. We periodically catch glimpses of his life throughout the film.
Once Jake and Lucy arrive at the farm, any sense of firm ground dissipates. Kaufman takes the film into surreal territory, with visual cues, dialogue, camera work, and score all being used to heighten the suspense. Lucy’s scarf is now red-orange and her peacoat is pink. Her name is Louisa or is it Lucia? Maybe Yvonne? She’s a poet, a painter, a university student studying to become a physicist. A dog comes and goes, almost magically. It’s creepy. Jake’s parents (played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis) are young and then old, then old and young again. Time doesn’t appear to exist, yet no one but Lucy notices. The weirdness includes discovering that the poem and the paintings Lucy had passed off as her own are actually the work of others.
A cringeworthy and tense dinner gives us much-needed insight into Jake. He seems unable to relax around his parents, particularly his mother. At one point, he pulls away from her touch, and not for the first time. Jake is almost hostile towards his mom and other women in the film. In a scene near the end, he and Lucy visit an ice-cream shop where Jake essentially tells her women can be cold to him. He proceeds to ignore the female employees and makes Lucy do all the talking. Though he can be condescending towards her, Jake does see Lucy differently. During their drive to the farm, Jake mentions, Williams Wordsworth wrote a series of poems to her namesake, a “beautiful idealized woman.” He thinks she too is ideal. You get the sense he chooses to see Lucy not for who she is, but for who he wants her to be. It’s his antidote to the hopelessness and alienation he feels.
Kaufman’s screenplay offers many wise observations about the human condition, but they land so effectively, in part, because of the superb performances by Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley. Plemons, who’s been consistently great since his days on “Friday Night Lights”, doesn’t disappoint here either. But it’s Buckley who leaves you in awe of her ability to make such a tricky role work. There’s no doubt she’s one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood.
Art continues to play a key role during the second half of the movie. In the middle of a blizzard, Kaufman has the pair discussing A Woman Under the Influence, a film about a woman unraveling, and David Foster Wallace, a talented writer who killed himself. You wonder if Jake is the one thinking of ending things. The last thirty minutes include a ballet sequence, a speech lifted from a more conventional movie about the mind and Oklahoma!, the play Kaufman keeps returning to. It’s a melancholic ending, fitting for a melancholic film. The ending will nonetheless catch you by surprise, as it’s even stranger and more bizarre than anything we’ve seen before.
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS has frustrated many viewers, understandably so. It can be exhausting navigating the dreamlike weirdness when you’re never quite sure if it’s leading anywhere. But Kaufman’s examination of subjects like mortality, loneliness, and love, which are never as far from our minds as we’d like them to be, is achingly affecting.
In a scene early into the film, Lucy takes in the gathering storm and snow-covered fields and thinks, “It is beautiful out here, in a bleak heartbroken kind of way,” and sometimes that’s exactly how life feels.
You can now watch I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS now exclusively on Netflix.