I'm Thinking of Ending Things
Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, brings cerebral psychological horror to Netflix this week. Well crafted and impressively acted, it’s a haunting film that can’t get out of its own way.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but I knew I wanted to see it. The trailer was a thought-provoking tease, and I generally love Charlie Kaufman’s work so I eagerly dove into the screener when it came in. Even without knowing what to expect, I don’t think anything could have summed up this story.
For this review, I’m going to break one of my rules: I’m going to talk spoilers. It’s something I normally avoid for new releases, but the more I think about it, the more I realized there’s almost no way to talk about this without some spoilers. Due to the nature of the film’s story and how it unfolds, however, even talking about it openly doesn’t feel like it’ll actually ruin anything.
However, if you want to go into this movie completely cold, you may want to turn back now. Still here? Okay, let’s dive into this one!
The film starts off simply enough. Jessie Buckley’s character, referred to as “Young Woman” is going on a “quick” trip with her boyfriend Jake (played by Jesse Plemons) of the last few weeks to meet his parents. As they travel along, and a snowstorm continues to grow into a blizzard, she’s overwhelmed by a singular thought, “I’m thinking of ending things.”
The thought is so pervasive it’s almost like Jake can hear it for himself, and it colors the remainder of their interactions. Things take a strange turn, however, as they arrive at his parents’ house where Jake seems simultaneously excited and apprehensive about the meeting.
A tour of the farm feels more sinister than it should as we encounter frozen lambs and a horrifying story of pigs which Jake brushes off as nothing more than typical life on the farm. She tries to put the unsettling thoughts behind her even as dinner with Jake’s parents gets progressively stranger.
The Young Woman finds herself experiencing time with Jake’s parents at various points in time. From when they were young to old, decrepit, and literally on a deathbed. As the evening wears on we hear multiple accounts of how the Young Woman and Jake met up, as well as her own background. Which only adds to the confusion.
Somehow, the story takes an even bigger turn once the couple get back on the road, braving the blizzard to return home. As they encounter increasingly terrible weather, a strange ice cream encounter, and eventually wind up at his old High School, the film goes way off any semblance of rails it once had.
All throughout the film, we’re treated with seemingly unrelated sequences of a Janitor working at a school. He seems lonely, but oddly connected to it all. When the Young Woman enters the High School in search of Jake, she encounters the Janitor, and things (kinda) begin coming together. I say kind of because the film does a great job of posing questions without actually answering anything.
All About The Tone
What happens in the film and the story between Jake and the Young Woman feels secondary. Instead, it’s more about setting a specific tone/mood throughout. This is frustrating for a couple reasons. Namely, it’s billed as a “horror” story, but you’d be hard pressed to find it within the movie.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m Thinking of Ending Things does a great job of selling you on the horror vibe, but fails to pay off with it. The sense of continual dread is accomplished in subtle ways; namely how it handles the bizarre moments.
The film glosses over the strangeness of the events in the film as if they’re the most natural thing around. While those watching it can see something is off, the story plays it off, making us wonder if WE’RE the ones to blame for the strangeness instead. For instance, the Young Woman’s story is constantly changing. At one point she’s Lucy, Lucia, and Amy (among others) with a job that varies depending on the name change. As her backstory continues to shift, we’re left to wonder if she’s really losing her mind or part of something bigger.
It’s impressive to see it happen, as the actors often shift their entire demeanor within the same scene. Hell, there were moments where they shift in the middle of a sentence, going from doom and gloom to bubbly and fun in a blink. Seeing the skill involved kept me focused and engaged, even as the story continued to meander.
This ever present feeling of dread never quite goes away, but neither does it build to anything. There’s a point in the film where Jessie Buckley’s enigmatic character tells her boyfriend he’s being “willfully obtuse.” It feels like the best way to describe the overall feeling of the movie itself. It gets right up to making a point several times, but never actually crosses the line. It knows this, but choose to continually tease around it.
It’s certainly thought-provoking; even as I find myself frustrated with it, I can’t seem to stop thinking of it. By that same token, however, it feels like it’s trying to be too smart for its own good. In its cleverness, much of those themes are lost in the minutiae of trying to figure it out! This is abundantly clear in how much of the film is just the two actors talking to one another in the car. The conversations cover philosophy, poetry, and even deep diving essays into the nature of entertainment. It’s all lofty stuff that is intriguing on the surface but rarely feel like they add to the overall story.
Missing the Book’s Point
If you didn’t already know, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is based on a novel of the same name. The movie isn’t so much a direct adaptation of the book, as it is Kaufman’s love letter to it. Like all adaptations, it takes liberties with the source material, but it distinctly avoids the book’s more conclusive ending.
The story wants to make a point about the fear of aging and regrets about chances not taken, but again, the film sticks to vague feelings. This makes it feel less like it has an overall point to make and would rather be clever. This is never more clear than in how the film ultimately treats the Young Woman.
She’s not a specific character. She’s an amalgamation of all the women in Jake’s life. The women he loved, the ones he missed out on, and those he was too shy to even try and talk to. As we come to learn in the book, she’s actually part of Jake as well. Jake is coming to terms with things in his life, which is why much of the film plays off so randomly and like the jumbled thoughts of someone else.
Jessie Buckley’s Young Woman isn’t the narrator of the story, but rather a function of Jake’s reconciliation. Even as her character rails against the idea of how a “woman’s role” in society is always secondary, she herself is relegated to nothing more than a function of Jake trying to take solace in growing older and feeling alone. It’s an interesting choice, to say the least and feels like it ultimately robs the story of points it's trying to make.
Again, though, these conclusions aren’t definitive in the film. While there are hints and teases sprinkled about, the film refuses to clarify what’s actually going on. The book itself is open to interpretation as well, though it’s not nearly as nebulous as the film. The end result is a story that feels all over the place.
There are elements of greatness in the film, and it’s lovingly crafted...Yet it doesn’t quite pull it together by the end. It’s even more problematic considering the ideas that intrigue me most rely on knowledge of events in the novel to make sense in the film. For those watching it without that background, it seems hopelessly lost in its own thoughts.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things sits at a weird juxtaposition for me. Despite not particularly caring for it once the credits rolled, I find myself unable to stop thinking about it. It’s fascinating in many ways, yet I find it hard to recommend to others. Even by Kaufman standards it’s a bit too esoteric, but certainly succeeds in making you think.