I’m Thinking of Ending Things * 2020 * Rated R * 2 Hours 14 Minutes
😸😸😸🌑🌑 Rated 3/5 Happy Lap Cats
I’m Thinking of Ending Things focuses on a young woman whose name changes throughout the film, so she’s billed as “Young Woman”. We’re introduced to her as Lucy, so I’m going to refer to her as that, because I hate it when major characters are treated like objects. Lucy is played by Jessie Buckley, who was amazing in the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries Chernobyl last year (2019) as Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the pregnant wife of a firefighter with severe radiation exposure.
Lucy has a newish boyfriend, Jake, played with understated creepiness by Jesse Plemens of Black Mirror: USS Callistor and Breaking Bad. Plemens is good at what he does, making it hard to separate the actor from the character. Plus, for attentive viewers, the first glimpse of his character shows him watching Lucy in the street from a 2nd floor window, with some strange, mumbled dialogue playing in the background. The sinister stalker vibe is established immediately.
An elderly man (Guy Boyd) is seen from the window first, who then turns into Jake. Before long, brief scenes of the elderly man working as a janitor in a high school where the musical Oklahoma! is rehearsing are intermittently inserted into the main storyline.
Lucy and Jake set out on a long car ride so they can visit Jake’s parents, known only as Mother and Father (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), who live on a farm in a small rural town. The car conversation is awkward from the get go, and Lucy thinks to herself more than once that she might end things. Which meaning of the phrase she’s considering, suicide or breaking up with her boyfriend, isn’t clarified, though it’s assumed at first that she’s referring to the latter. As they talk, Jake is subtly controlling and condescending, while maintaining a calm and sensitive facade. Every time it’s implied that Lucy is about to reveal something important, he cuts her off, often with a suggestion that it’s time to stop somewhere.
The drive drags on (and on), through the beginning of a snowstorm, but eventually they reach Jake’s childhood home and Lucy meets Jake’s uber eccentric parents. Before they go inside, Jake gives Lucy a tour of the family’s farm, pointing out where farm animals have died in the barn. The film takes place in winter, and the rural scenery is bleak but beautiful, as the characters frequently tell us.
The snow that was cheery in town becomes ever more threatening in the empty countryside. Death is everywhere, from farm animals to abandoned houses to bare trees and frozen plants. Rather than feeling warm and nostalgic, the vestiges of Jake’s childhood that he and Lucy encounter once they are inside the house continue to add to the feeling of cold, empty death.
Mother and Father are happy to meet Lucy, but the awkwardness continues. At dinner, Lucy tells Jake’s parents how she and Jake met, but the story doesn’t quite make sense. The evening begins to unravel, time seems to pass at strange speeds and the characters visit other parts of the house, stimulating even more odd conversations and revelations.
Finally, Lucy wakes up to the situation and becomes suspicious that something particularly weird is going on. She’s insisted from the beginning of the car ride that she needs to get home rather than spending the night at Jake’s parents’ house and soon she becomes determined to leave. Jake agrees, but has duties he needs to take care of for his parents first.
As the film continues, Jake and Lucy gradually make progress in the right direction, but their trip is lengthened at every possible moment. Jake’s subtly controlling nature feels more and more sinister as time goes on and his manipulations of both Lucy and the audience become increasingly desperate. This film works as psychological thriller, horror and whatever you call that weird, philosophical, mind-bending genre of pseudo social commentary that keeps you asking questions about what it was trying to accomplish and whether it was worth your time, even after it ends.
Jake is ultimately judging himself. The opinions of the other characters and the audience are irrelevant anyway.
I suspect that Charlie Kaufman, the writer-producer-director of this film, is a filmmaker viewers either love or hate. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a well-crafted film, for the most part. There are many times when the navel-gazing existential angst and lingering looks of it all drag on too long. The film could have been 30-40 minutes shorter and no one would have noticed.
It’s visually interesting and I didn’t find it hard to pick up on the clues or follow events at all. There are many small visual clues to notice, so it does require actually looking at the screen, which I guess is an issue for some viewers these days. There are a couple of brief animated sequences that are also well done and add much needed depth and clarity to the ending.
The musical Oklahoma! plays a big role in the story and is integrated in creative and interesting ways, leading back to how we all lie to ourselves and each other. Life is not a whitewashed, sweet ballet, kids, even when deciding between two fighting lovers. And there are giant, gaping holes in the musical’s story, like the existence of Native Americans and how the settlers treated them. This ties into the gaping holes in Jake’s version of his life, which viewers are left to fill in based on the clues scattered throughout the film.
Toni Collette and David Thewlis are delightful and outrageous as Jake’s mother and father. Hadley Robinson, Gus Birney and Abby Quinn also stand out as the three Tulsey Town girls. The use of sound and the sound editing deserve a mention both for the way they are used to create the setting and time period and then for the way they’re used to ratchet up the tension, especially the sound editing.
What you do with this film is up to you. I didn’t enjoy the plot, such as it was, and rated it based on its technical aspects and the performances instead. If you like Charlie Kaufman’s work, you’ll probably like it. It’s very much in the same vein and tells very much the same story that he always tells.
Thematically, it continues Kaufman’s exploration of the eternal futility of love, since everything dies or leaves, but also the harsh truth that there’s nothing else worth living for, when you come right down to it, leaving one with a paradox of hope and sadness. As always, he responds to the basic paradoxes of being alive and human – need vs loss, love vs death – with absurdity and self-absorption.
In small doses, this can be fun. But it’s also an adolescent attempt to hide that shallow, egocentric emotional response with elaborate, sparkly smoke and mirrors and abuse toward others in attempts to make oneself seem sophisticated and in control rather than confused and frightened.
Before long, I start wondering where the grown ups have gotten to.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is streaming on Netflix. IMDB page, where you can look up the talented people responsible for its technical achievements.
Analysis- Major Spoilers Below!
Charlie Kaufman, the writer-producer of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and writer/director/producer of Synecdoche, NY, wrote, directed and produced I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I’m not familiar with every bit of his work, but from what I can tell his general oeuvre involves vomiting out whatever is inside his skull at the moment when he writes a screenplay and turning that into a sort of dark, nonlinear fantasy. Audiences can then insert themselves into Kaufman’s interior life in whatever way they wish, in a circular, late-capitalist ego-stroking clusterf–k.
He also has a knack for finding creative ways to erase his female characters without necessarily appearing to do so. Sometimes they do, in fact, disappear to Europe. Sometimes the character is metaphorically assassinated, as in, they are turned into someone unrecognizable. But most frequently, they aren’t real people at all. They are Charlie Kaufman puppets, who are empty voids inside and only perform the tasks necessary to fulfill the psychological needs of the protagonist, who is a Charlie Kaufman stand in, which is a character with a little more stuffing and agency than a Charlie Kaufman puppet. What’s frightening is just how thoroughly he exiles, erases, empties and kills his female puppets.
The philosophical point of view that the world is nothing but a figment of the protagonist’s imagination keeps coming up recently in the shows I’m writing about, and here we are again. I’m Thinking of Ending Things tries to keep the viewer guessing about which point of view is the real one, but, as I pointed out in my review, we are shown in the early part of the film. Sure, Lucy gets voiceovers, but we all know that voices in your head aren’t real.
Jake/the janitor is given the omniscient stalker/God position as he watches the start of the action from his second story window. Jake also makes comments early in the film that clue an attentive viewer in to the fact that he’s connected to the janitor.
The actual mysteries of the film are, who is Lucy and what happens to her? What is this trip actually about? How are Jake and the janitor connected? How will Jake and the janitor come to terms with who they really are?
I hated Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because of the way the characters were dehumanized and erased. I absolutely loathed Synecdoche, NY because it added self-absorbed nihilism and destruction to the dehumanization and erasure. For me, I’m Thinking of Ending Things portrays the patriarchal point of view that women, people of color and animals are all extensions of the white male mind, simply created to be playthings in a giant sandbox, destroyed and then recreated at will. Or simply erased from existence, if the truth they might make you face is too uncomfortable.
In the basement, where the thoughts no one wants to face live, Lucy finds the janitor’s uniforms in the washing machine and discovers that her paintings are really Jake’s paintings, which are really Ralph Albert Blakelock’s paintings. Father insisted at dinner that he couldn’t understand a painting that didn’t contain a representation of a person he could imagine as himself. It turns out that everyone in the house is the janitor after all. There’s no place for any other living being in that house/mind.
The uniforms in the washer are not a metaphor. They are Jake’s method of disposing of incriminating evidence.
As George Orwell said in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This is Jake’s world and he controls it. Since his favorite musical is Oklahoma!, the high schoolers rehearse all day and all night while he works and ogles the girls. But he sees himself as both a victim and a perpetrator, so horror elements sneak into the cozy family dinner and theoretically safe, mainstream school setting.
The students and his parents make Jake feel uncomfortable, justifying whatever he does next. Once again the reasoning is somewhat circular, because they are uncomfortable around him, in part, because they sense that there’s something very, very wrong, despite the fact that he’s quietly working in the corner.
Schools don’t feel as automatically safe for most people as they used to. They were always potential houses of horror for nerds and undesirables. Now that we’re in the era of school shootings and we admit that sexual assaults happen, a school janitor lurking near a play rehearsal can become as creepy as a priest staring at altar boys.
A school janitor, after all, technically has a valid occupational reason to follow either gender into the bathroom or down the hall to the dressing room. What was that Jake said in the car, at least twice, about how awkward it is to run into the students after they’ve graduated? Is that because of the secrets they share and the threats he’s made after he’s sexually assaulted them, perhaps violently?
This is where the dead lambs, maggotty pigs, and matching rashes come in. Killing and torturing animals is a sign of psychopathy, a tendency toward violence and dehumanization. Oklahoma! has a definitive good guy, Curly, as in curly hair, just like the innocent lambs’ wool, and a bad guy, Jud. Pigs are actually sweet, intelligent animals, but Kaufman used them as a metaphor for the bad guy who’s so rotten and lazy inside that maggots are eating him, so I’m stuck with that. Jud is a maggotty pig.
Jake’s internal struggle is that he knows he’s a maggotty pig, but he wants to be seen as a lamb. He’s unable to accept his true nature and it’s eating him up inside. Note that this isn’t the same as feeling guilty over his crimes.
Mother serves ham at the dinner table while insisting that everything they’re eating comes from the farm. This tells us that Lucy, the details of whose identity change and flow like water over this scene, is from the farm, too. She’s a figment of Jake’s imagination – or at least she is now. Once she was a real person, but her fate is unclear. It implies that Mother and Father are not currently real either, but they were once real people, too.
Jake wants to see himself as Curly, the lamb and good guy, but he knows that he’s the ham/maggotty pig, who’s done so much wrong that he deserves to be punished. The lambs in the barn doorway are frozen in place and untouched, where his childhood innocence and Christian views of morality ossified, halfway to adulthood. The pigs grew so big that they couldn’t stand on their own anymore and died from the paradoxical effects of neglect and overindulgence. They were alive but rotting as if they were dead. That’s surely a comment on America today.
It also tells us that Jake knows he’s a disgusting human being, but still can’t be bothered to restrain his appetites. In fact, as with the pigs, his excesses have been profitable to the farm, so there’s basically no motivation for him to control himself. As with so many in Hollywood, such as Harvey Weinstein. The maggotty pigs made it all the way to the big house, dressed up as the ham on the dinner table.
But let’s return to the beginning for a moment. One of the few touches of vibrant color in the film are the wallpapers in Jake’s parents’ house. Many of the rooms have bright floral patterns in yellow, orange, green and red. The flowers, in particular, tend to be yellow and orange. The yellow flowers could be another allusion to childhood innocence. Orange flowers are frequently associated with death.
Or the wallpaper could be a reference to early feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, an 1892 story which uses first person journal entries to depict a woman who is slowly going insane from being forced to rest in her bedroom with nothing to do for months in order to cure her “slight hysterical tendency”. The only mental stimulation she has is her patterned wallpaper and eventually she believes she becomes trapped behind it.
The film has many other references to insane or weak women. In Oklahoma!, Laurey can’t make up her mind between 2 men and turns to a magic potion (which is actually opium based) for help. Then, after she’s made a mess of things with her indecision, she depends on good guy Curly to rescue her from Jud, a man who won’t take no for an answer. In A Woman Under the Influence, the Pauline Kael film review Lucy recites, the main character, Mabel, is unable to cope with the demands of normal life, so her husband commits her to a mental institution for 6 months. Even after she’s released, her ability to cope is tenuous.
Jake has a collection of reviews by legendary film critic Pauline Kael in his bedroom, For Keeps. Nothing ominous in that title. Lucy’s supposedly original poem is actually not; it’s from Eva HD’s collection of poetry, Rotten Perfect Mouth. The poem speaks of the absence of a wife or the presence of a wife who is so unsatisfactory that the author’s home is repulsive rather than welcoming.
As they arrive at Tulsey Town, Jake asks Lucy if she’s read the Anna Kavan novel Ice. The book was also seen in his childhood bedroom. Out of the many references from the film that I’ve checked, this story most closely resembles I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It was written by a woman and is sometimes seen as a feminist book. But Jake uses it to control the conversation. Lucy is barely allowed to complete a sentence in this portion of the scene. Anna Kavan was a mentally ill heroin addict who died soon after this book was published. Another woman on the edge, who wrote about characters on the edge.
Jake is usually taking care of his mother when he interacts with her, so he’s in control. He cares for her until she deteriorates into helplessness and death. Then, chillingly, he still controls interactions with her body, the way a serial killer might.
The other female he speaks with is the Tulsey Town clown animation as he’s dying in the truck. Clowns are associated with insanity. This clown is also associated with a childhood memory and dairy products – she’s a mother substitute, which makes his stalking of the Tulsey Town servers extra gross.
Attractive, teenage blonde female twins symbolically equate to monsters men are driven to sexually pursue, but know they should resist and protect from other men, the equivalent of Greek sirens who were specifically designed to lure men to their deaths and obviously have no interior life and few rights of their own.
They are the equivalent of Oklahoma!’s Laurey, high status women with conditional purity and protection who become fair game for lower status men if they fall from their pedestal, even if the fall is involuntary. Had Jud successfully raped Laurey, she would have lost her status as a worthy bride for alpha male Curly and likely would have had to marry Jud. Tulsey Town holds the community’s potential brides/mothers, some of whom have been defiled by Jake, which is why he can’t face them.
The intelligent brunette with the rash is a lower status but dangerous girl, the Medusa who, in Jake’s mind, has no future anyway, so it’s okay to rape and maybe even kill her. That’s why Lucy recognized her. She was probably a Medusa as well, a girl that Jake thought he had a shot with, but then he still didn’t succeed with using normal dating methods. Look at both women’s hair.
Then look at the matching rashes on Jake and the brunette. He sees them both as outcasts, so she has no right of refusal. But more importantly, he brought her down to his level by spreading his rash to her/assaulting her, so she can’t criticize him. The rash is the oozing, festering wound Jake speaks of at one point. It’s the wound that allows the maggots and rot in. He tries to tell her and himself that if she takes part in his rot, he’s not as culpable.
Gaslighting, coercion and Stockholm Syndrome. Good concepts to keep in mind when dealing with men like this.
All of these references add up to a man who is trying to understand and catalogue women while feeling guilty about his lifelong treatment of them. But he’s doing so by placing women in very stereotyped categories based on how they relate to and are violently and sexually controlled by men. Not surprisingly, he’s not finding any emotional satisfaction or having any success with women using this technique. Because he’s also trying to put his own life in perspective, he’s maintaining the fairy tales he’s used all along as coping mechanisms to deal with his deep-seated shame.
Jake also attributes the work of other women to Lucy, stealing the work of the artists involved and further dehumanizing her. She’s not allowed to break through as a unique individual. Jake treats his father only slightly better than his mother, mainly as an extension and repetition of himself. The men in Oklahoma! are archetypes, sometimes even racist stereotypes. The ballet disappears Lucy and becomes a dance about the dark and light sides of Jake/the janitor- Jake is the light side, while the janitor is the dark side, though it’s more of a mixed up, yin/yang split. The dark side dies in the ballet, but Jake also disappears and the janitor accepts his own dark side as inevitable before he dies.
Given the implications of the film, this is not an okay ending. A few sacrificial maggotty pigs may have become ham, but the rest of them still run far too much of the world.