Rosie Couch contemplates all the winding complexities of the new mind-bending psychological drama from Charlie Kaufman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which was released on Netflix on the 4th of September.
As the director of films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman is well-versed in constructing narratives which speak to the complexities of negotiating selfhood. Often concerned with loneliness, love, and ambivalence, Kaufman’s films utilise the malleability of cinema, making the most of shifting and overlapping temporalities, internal monologues, and experiments with form.
It is due to the above that I had been looking forward to his new film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) – adapted from the 2016 novel of the same name by Iain Reid – for a while. Having seen Kaufman’s previous work, and caught glimpses of reviews online, I had a feeling that I’m Thinking of Ending Things would not be an easy watch. This suspicion did not necessarily stem from what I knew about the film’s content – though it does, mini spoiler alert, feature some fairly unsettling subject matter – but because of how Kaufman’s work consistently demands your attention from the get-go. With its dense and thoughtful dialogue, interspersed with requisite uncanny sequences, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no exception.
The film unfolds from the perspective, or so we are led to believe, of Lucy (Jessie Buckley), who is waiting for her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to pick her up and take her to meet his parents for the first time. So far so normal. During their journey through an increasingly heavy blizzard, the couple’s conversation is thick with awkward tension, a feeling both perpetuated and reflected through Lucy’s interior refrain: ‘I’m thinking of ending things’. Also strewn throughout the stilted exchange are references to William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’ and Eva H.D.’s exceptional poem ‘Bonedog’. Buckley’s delivery of the latter, framed as a poem penned by Lucy, is notably brilliant, more of a drawl than a reading, yet just as impactful as the poem’s near repetitions of ‘coming home is terribly lonely […] coming home is terrible […] coming home is just awful’. And, as the meeting with Jake’s parents swerves between hostility and unsettling joviality, home proves to be just that: terribly lonely, terrible, just awful.
From the frantic explosions of laughter from Jake’s mother (Toni Collette) to his father’s (David Thewlis) belligerent criticism of Lucy’s art, the scenes at the house are viscerally uncomfortable. The abrupt shifts in mood enabled by the dialogue, and an outstanding performance from Collette especially, lend the filmic narrative a teetering, tenuous quality; sudden violence, or a shift further into more conventional territories of horror, lurks throughout. As the film continues, it becomes apparent (well, actually, it didn’t for me, which is something that I’ll expand on later) that something arguably even more sinister is afoot. Multiple (and, of course, deliberate) continuity errors let you know that something about this reality is not quite right. For instance, Lucy’s hairstyle and the colour of her jumper start to alter from scene to scene. The family dog shakes itself dry for a little too long. The ages of Jake’s parents also start to change. We see his mother as a young woman, tidying up a much younger Jake’s toys, his father with early signs of dementia, his mother dying in a hospital bed in the living room, while his father simultaneously re-enters the room as a young man – all within the space of what is supposed to be one afternoon, stretching into evening. Time is misbehaving. Amidst all of this chaos, Lucy can’t remember how long she and Jake have been together. Six weeks? Seven? It feels like forever. She looks at a childhood photograph hanging on the wall and sees herself. She turns to ask Jake who is in the photograph, and he says that it is him. Lucy turns back and, sure enough, Jake’s image has replaced her own. Throughout the film so far, she’s been referred to by the names Lucy, Lucia, and Louisa, while receiving and ignoring phone calls from people of the same name. The refrain within her mind, ‘I’m thinking of ending things’, remains the same.
At this point, I thought that the film was concerned with the difficulties of attaining a sense of selfhood within certain romantic relationships; the ambivalent slippage between self and other that occurs when your life becomes inextricably tied up with another person.
Such a thematic leaning wouldn’t be out of character for Kaufman, particularly with reference to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film which engages with the difficulties, sometimes the impossibilities, of separating yourself from another person following a romantic estrangement. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we follow protagonist Joel (Jim Carrey) as he attempts to get over Clementine (Kate Winslet) with the help of a new technology – a form of memory erasure from the firm Lacuna Inc. – designed to wipe memories of those who have been loved and lost from the minds of the heartbroken.
What I find most intriguing and contentious about Eternal Sunshine, however, is the way in which it constructs and yet simultaneously deconstructs the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. In short, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists within the filmic narrative to bolster the male protagonist. If, like Joel, the protagonist is quiet, brooding, and living inside his own shell, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl must be loud and impulsive enough to bring him out of it. She does not have any desires outside of what the male protagonist needs her to desire – namely, him. Clementine certainly operates on this level throughout a lot of the narrative – it is, after all, delivered from Joel’s perspective, so will mostly present his construction of her – however, her decision to erase Joel does lend her a sense of agency that is both beyond his control and outside of what he desires. When coupled with Clemetine’s memorable statement, ‘too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours’, it becomes evident that Eternal Sunshine does attempt to both highlight and destabilise the prevalence of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl mode both within cinema, and within interpersonal relationships.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I suggest, is doing something similar. In what is, inarguably, a very clever twist, we discover – big spoiler alert – that the whole narrative has been imagined by an exterior figure who, up until now, we have only seen a few times. The figure is Jake but as an old man, working as a janitor at the local high school. The phrase, ‘I’m thinking of ending things’, can colloquially refer to both the decision to conclude a relationship, but also the ending of one’s own life. From the brief scenes we have witnessed of older Jake throughout the film, we gather that he lives a life of loneliness – being laughed at by pupils who he later sees moving through their life while he stays in the same place, still living in his childhood home, his parents long-departed. The narrative has thus been a fantasy playing out within older Jake’s mind, which explains the changing names, hairstyles, clothing, professions, temperaments, as well as the invasive and uncomfortable encounters with his declining parents. The intrusions of ‘I’m thinking of ending things’ throughout have also belonged to the psyche of the janitor – he is thinking of ending his life.
While there is, no doubt, something critically intriguing about a story belonging to an exterior figure who we may not have paid much notice towards – especially given that janitor Jake’s state of mind is no doubt affected by the invisibility associated with his marginality – protagonist Lucy is subsumed within the realms of male fantasy, little more than shifting projections of a woman Jake met many years ago. The references to poetry and theory are revealed to stem from Jake’s own interests. Lucy is a fluctuating series of projections, constructed to reflect Jake’s intellectual prowess back towards himself; to engage him in debates where he can shine. Perhaps, we assume, if he gets her image just right, it will be enough to keep him afloat. Echoing another line from ‘Bonedog’, Jake’s ‘eyes have become a hunger’ – we have been consuming the story from his desiring perspective all along. However, as with Eternal Sunshine, the construction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in I’m Thinking of Ending Things is conscious and self-referential. When Jake mentions Wordsworth’s Lucy poems and their beautiful, idealistic muse, Lucy (ironically) says that she’s ‘not a metaphorical kind of girl’, despite claims from Jake that she is both beautiful and ideal – a suggestion that makes her visibly uncomfortable. Later, as we watch a young Jake caring for his dying mother, he mentions how it can often feel like ‘no one sees the good things you do. You’re just alone’. With a kiss on the forehead, Lucy assures him that she sees it, and therefore him. However, when descending the staircase following this encounter, her journey becomes a loop as her thoughts also begin to spiral, leading to a critique of constructions of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but also the politics of romantic relationships:
‘Jake needs to see me as someone who sees him. He needs to be seen and he needs to be seen with approval. Like that’s my purpose in all of this, in life, to approve of Jake, to keep him going. And he needs to see me as someone whose approval of him is validated, because I’m approved of by others. “Look at my girlfriend, look at what I won. She’s smart, she’s talented, she’s sensitive. She can do this, she knows about that, she made this, she cares about that”’.
This section of the dialogue problematises how the narrative, and therefore Jake, imagines Lucy. It is partly because of this identification – and the difficulty in identifying where the fantasy of Lucy ends and where Jake himself begins – that the fantasy collapses in on itself, in an increasingly bizarre series of events at the local high school where Jake works as a janitor.
Though, as I have mentioned, the twist of perspective in I’m Thinking of Ending Things is incredibly clever and skilful, I was left feeling somewhat ambivalent about the film after my first watch. Part of my excitement about the new release was connected to a desire to watch a Kaufman film that focused on a woman’s interiority, selfhood, and the difficult interconnectedness of romantic relationships. But, when watching the film for a second time, I felt that the shift in perspective allowed space for an incredibly touching story about a man who wants to be seen, appreciated, and loved. Furthermore, on reflection, the focus given to Lucy’s character from the outset of the film, and my desire to see and hear more from her rather than the exterior janitor, bolsters the impact of the twist. Older Jake is marginalised by the film’s form, reflecting the way that his character is ostracised within the filmic narrative. A second watch of I’m Thinking of Ending Things implores us to look for janitor Jake, for clues that we might have missed, perhaps in a similar way that those who have lost people to suicide might trawl their memories for signs that something wasn’t right, for where they could have made a difference. Again, however, such a reading brings me back to more ambivalence. Though her characterisation is revealed to be Jake’s fantasy, to take Lucy’s initial framing of the story as an essential facet of older Jake’s narrational marginalisation, is to suggest that there isn’t space for both stories. Such a claim comes from ideas of scarcity relating to the filmmaking industry when, evidently, given the plethora and diversity of filmmakers who identify as women, there is abundance and opportunity. There is the space and desire for women’s stories on screen, and their inclusion does not have to be at the expense of others.
That being said, perhaps the idea of ambivalence is a good place to end, especially when considering Kaufman’s films, where nothing is quite sure of itself from moment to moment; meaning jumps around, fleeing your grasp. Admittedly, like most viewers I assume (or hope), I had to read the synopsis of Reid’s novel in order to grasp the plot of I’m Thinking of Ending Things in its entirety. There’s something about needing to find out the ‘true meaning’ of any complex piece of art makes me feel uneasy (a feeling that was recently exacerbated by a viewing of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020)). The joy of dense or intricately constructed narratives lies in their capacity for numerous, overlapping meanings. In contrast, this idea of needing to ‘get’ unnecessarily complicated films like Tenet in order to fully appreciate them, belongs within the realm of the Film Bros. I’m Thinking of Ending Things, on the other hand, is hard to grasp but fruitful, because it luxuriates in the strange, the uncanny, and the multiple.
Rosie Couch is a contributing editor to Wales Arts Review and co-presents the Wales Arts Review Podcast.