I’m Thinking of Ending Things: Pretentiousness disguised as brilliance?
October 13, 2020 | Luiza Loyo
Illustration by Violet Lingenfelter
Charlie Kaufman’s new film I’m Thinking of Ending Things might aim to be a sophisticated brain twister that leaves its audience flabbergasted for days. However, it proves itself to be an overly complicated and aggravating watch with a narrative that hasn’t much to say.
The story centers around Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) who might be named Lucy, Lucia, Louisa, or Ames. The two are on a snow-ridden roadtrip to meet Jake’s parents, and our mysterious leading lady is thinking of ending things with him.
The film has an uneasiness to it. Even in the first seemingly mundane moments, the audience feels there is something not right, something yet to be revealed. Once the couple arrives at Jake’s parents’ farmhouse, strange events unfold. What starts as an awkward date with the in-laws (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) soon turns into a mind-bending and time-defying nightmare.
Illustration by Violet Lingenfelter
Lucy (Lucia, Louisa, or Ames) is said to be a painter, a waitress, a physics student in college, and a poet. Jake’s parents appear to be in their late 50s, then shockingly old and sick with dementia, then young again. The entire sequence feels like a fever dream, suggesting a thousand different things about these characters and jumping back and forth through the stages of their lives.
The complex happenings at the farmhouse are paralleled with shots of a high school janitor’s ordinary life. The audience follows him as he sweeps the floors, catches demeaning looks from students, and seems burdened by an uneventful routine. Slowly, through the timing and juxtaposition of these shots with the other storyline, the viewer realizes the janitor is Jake, at another point in time.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things grabs your attention at first: it’s fun to speculate what it all means, similar to Kaufman’s widely beloved and equally complex film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. However, where Eternal Sunshine succeeds in being a beautifully complicated and deeply meaningful film the audience enjoys pondering over, I’m Thinking of Ending Things falls short.
Half of the story is spent inside Jake’s car, where he and Lucy have various conversations and debates. The dialogue jumps between references of Wordsworth poems and incredibly specific old films, which turn the film — already difficult to comprehend — into a completely inaccessible ball of pretentiousness.
A lot of philosophical ideas are introduced through long pieces of dialogue and borderline hallucinogenic events, but none of them are expanded on further than that. It is almost as if the author of the book it was based on, Iain Reid, wrote down his stream of consciousness and force-fed it to us as psychodramatic literature.
The performances are the highlight of the movie. Buckley and Plemons play well off of each other, and Collette, even in her limited amount of screen time, does not fail to show her endless range and talent. However, for being the acting force that she is, Colette was brutally underutilized, only appearing briefly in the first half of the film.
Near its ending, the true meaning of the film becomes a little less foggy. Although no interpretation can be confirmed as the full truth, Kaufman insinuates that Jake has created Lucy in his mind and the entire story has been an imagination of what his life could have been like if he had taken more risks. The viewer finds out he never dated Lucy, but that he saw her at a bar once and only stared at her from afar, too afraid to approach her. At another point in the movie, it is also revealed he had a passion for painting and the arts but never pursued those interests. Jake creates a scenario in his head of what he could have experienced had he not settled for the monotonous and lonely life he leads as a janitor. In fewer words, “It was all a dream.”
Jake’s sad fate reveals itself through an abrupt dance sequence that mirrors all of the things he had dreamed of, a tactic that only added to the film's pretentious tone. Followed by a scene of old Jake walking completely naked behind an animated cartoon pig, clearly a symbol for himself, it seems as if the director keeps coming up with the weirdest and most uncomfortable ways to make a simple point.
However, films never need to be 100% clear and satisfying to the audience. Coming up with individual interpretations and wondering what a story meant long after it is over is one of the joys of watching a film. Yet, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is frustrating in its storytelling and seems overly complicated for a film that, in the end, simply tells the story of a man’s sorrow.
Despite all of this, Kaufman’s latest will have its fair share of admirers. After all, this might be just the right movie people need right now — it is every bit as messy and chaotic as 2020.