Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things was released today on Netflix (4 September 2020) and is based on the book of the same name by Iain Reid. The film follows the story of a young woman and her boyfriend going to meet his parents. It also features the looming short clips of the high school janitor making his way through the day. In intermingling these stories, Charlie Kaufman was able to create a film that observed how stories can be used to meditate on the complexities of human life, whether that be thoughts of time, life, death, or love. SPOILERS from here on out.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an unspeakably complex moving and is honestly intimidating to review or analyze. This is all my interpretation so that it with a grain of salt. The film’s only real character is the janitor. Everyone else is a character in a story which he is telling himself as he contemplates suicide throughout a single day. None of the events between the girlfriend or the boyfriend, Jake, actually occurred, but I do believe that Jake is based on the janitor’s perception of himself and the girlfriend is possibly based on a girlfriend he once dated or a woman that he sexually assaulted earlier in his life. He tells himself the story through the course of the day until he finishes cleaning the school and ends up killing himself by sitting in his freezing car, possibly due to the guilt he lives with.
Theme – Stories:
The first theme that resonated with me was the idea of stories. On the simplest level, Kaufman wanted to show how stories can be used to empathize with others or even one’s own self. The janitor is not mainly focusing on Jake (the character representing himself) but on the girlfriend. He may not have known the real version of her well enough, but he seeks to understand her point of view through a series of possibilities, whether that be her visit to his parents in perfect health or on their deathbeds. He observes her actions and reactions to each situation. It also seems that he wants her to understand him. He wants her to see that he was a complex person as well, caring for his dying parents. It might be his way of asking her for forgiveness.
But on another level, Kaufman is trying to express that stories no longer exist on their own. People are constantly bombarded with media in the forms of film, television, books, music, and advertisements. We interpret our world based on things we’ve read or seen somewhere, consciously or subconsciously. This comes out in the movie when Jake’s girlfriend recites a poem she wrote or shows off canvases that she painted, only to later discover they were written or painted by someone else. It’s also seen when the janitor inflects stories from his real-life into his story, such as the film he watches near the beginning becoming the basis for one of the stories of the two character’s meeting. Finally, it can be seen through how he views the potential assault he committed in the form of a dance, and his coping with it in the form of a musical.
Theme – Life/Death:
The phrase “I’m thinking of ending things” both represents the girlfriend’s desire to leave the relationship and the janitor’s thoughts of suicide. He uses her desire for a break-up to represent his desire to end his life. The girlfriend moves through the day knowing the relationship will eventually come to an end, so why not end it there. She ponders on the fact that remaining in a relationship is comfortable because we have something tangible, something we know. But like death, ending the relationship removes that barrier of comfort. What lies on the other side is both unknowable and terrifying.
Kaufman loves to make films about death (see Synecdoche, New York) and has a pessimistic but realistic view on it. In Synecdoche, the ending can be seen as pessimistic because the character never comes to terms with his meaninglessness or fear of death. I’m Thinking of Ending Things can also be seen as pessimistic, this time because it seems as if the janitor tried to cope with his guilt through a story but failed to save himself. These views make Kaufman’s movies difficult to watch and for some people probably difficult to enjoy. But it’s an important viewpoint to be heard because there really isn’t a fear more universal than this.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a brilliant film. Not only does it tackle the themes I talked about, but those such as love, time, guilt, feminism, art, and many more. It elegantly weaves these thoughts together without ever making it draw away from the story at hand. The acting is wonderful all around with the two leads (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons) switching flawlessly between a variety of personalities. The parents, played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, perfectly represent caricatures of insane parents while also providing tender moments in their old age. The dialogue is expertly written as well, and left me engrossed in their conversation through two 20-minute car rides. To me, Kaufman is a genius because not only can he tackle deep themes with such grace while using a complex and unique narrative style, but he makes the movie enjoyable, beautiful, and touching, without even having to pick up on any of that. My main complaint is that the janitor’s guilt from the possible assault did not fully work for me. If he was experiencing such profound guilt, I wish we could have seen a bit more of that story as well. The film also seemed to tackle themes Kauffman has explored before, but to a far less effective extent.
With that, I am giving this movie a 4.25/5.00. If you enjoyed this film, I recommend checking out Synecdoche, New York for something else by him, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive for a similar narrative structure, or Kurosawa’s Ikiru for similar thematic material.
Edit: I have revisions to my thoughts on the narrative. I’ll be rewatching the movie soon and either updating my post here or making a separate one that focuses on narrative rather than themes.
See my Letterboxd review here: Letterboxd
See other movie reviews or what I plan to watch next here: Movie Review