“People like to think of themselves as points moving through time. But I think it’s probably the opposite. We’re stationary, and time passes through us.”
Every time I’ve recommended Charlie Kaufman’s new project, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, to anyone – a fair few times – I’ve insisted that all assumptions be thrown out the window. Forget the title and forget the couple. This is your spoiler alert.
A film like this certainly entertains presumptions – it lulls the viewer into thinking that Young Woman, as she is credited throughout the film (remarkably portrayed by Jessie Buckley) is wanting to end things with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), then almost fully abandons this trajectory to dwell on suicide in later parts of the movie. Overall, it’s about both of those themes, and also about nothing at all. All of the actions happening within the movie are part of an old janitor’s pre-death delirium, including, but not limited to, the young woman partnering his younger self throughout the film. What is more important to acknowledge, however, is the artifice of absurdity that is used to convey those elements.
Jessie Buckley’s character is a conundrum of the women that Jake had shared his life with, of his insecurities and memories with them, and of their own timeline, something which becomes abundantly clear through the various and abrupt shifts in identity that the character goes through.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things starts out quiet. So much so, that we only really get to hear Jay Wadley’s score towards the end of the film. This quietude is crucial to the literal calm before the storm. The action occurs in the build-up to a blizzard which becomes increasingly violent as the protagonist approaches his death. Heat and colour – life – is exclusively present within interior spaces, with Jake’s childhood home and his old high school being the only settings unencumbered by the snowstorm. The janitor’s ageing process, associated with this storm, is in almost complete tandem with the Young Woman’s – the fantasy’s – own fall into existential crisis. Jessie Buckley’s character is a conundrum of the women that Jake had shared his life with, of his insecurities and memories with them, and of their own timeline, something which becomes abundantly clear through the various and abrupt shifts in identity that the character goes through: she starts out as Lucy – physicist and poet – to then become Louisa – painter with a stutter – Yvonne, Lucia – gerontologist – and, finally, Ames. She is never any of them, yet she is all of them at once. Her existential crisis is a direct result of Jake’s own questioning, yet it seems as if he is a spectator of her reliving his memories, inhabiting and absorbing them. This is clearly seen in her claiming paintings and poems which were never hers (as she later finds out), as well as in her seeing her own childhood self in the old pictures hung up in Jake’s house. She belongs in his timeline to be digested and eliminated, and the moment she realises this, is the moment that both the viewer’s perceived reality and the actuality of the film’s events come crumbling down. Presciently, an early conversation with Jake, she says: “everything wants to live”.
Truth, time, and ageing are the three themes dissected throughout the movie, much more so than death in itself. Rather than it being a mosaic of inconsistencies, the film’s narrative unfolds in real time relative to its plot. This is to say that everything that the characters discuss prior to arriving at Jake’s parents’ house affects the parents’ behaviours despite their ignorance of this conversation having taken place, because everything taking place is a figment of and fragmented in Jake’s psychological landscape. As in a dream, absurdity is ignored, and our protagonist seems to have absolutely no control over time or over any of the events which are occurring. It is a nightmare, because there is an overriding stagnancy to the actions taking place. The Young Woman never gets home, and it takes her multiple tries to persuade Jake to leave the house. It’s similar to when one wants to do something in a dream, but is never able to, no matter how much they command their brain to do it. She is the first-class passenger of a collapsing timeline, which she was never a part of to begin with.
She is the first-class passenger of a collapsing timeline, which she was never a part of to begin with.
In fact, the Young Woman is much more similar to Jake’s parents, perfectly portrayed by Toni Collette and David Thewlis, than she will ever be to Jake. These characters are barely people. They mostly represent unpleasant parts of Jake: his mother points out his insecurities whilst congratulating his “diligence”; his father is overly cynical and slightly sexually inappropriate.
The dinner table scene is perhaps the most crucial in the whole movie. It is foregrounded by the feast prepared by Jake’s mother, something which does not align with his and his girlfriend’s earlier conversation (“You know my mother has not been feeling very well, recently […] I’m just saying that there might not be much of a spread, that she might not be up to a lot of cooking”), and allows for every device which Kaufman had intended to portray memory and time to be showcased. In terms of dialogue, the characters abruptly start a sentence right after another’s has finished, or even unnaturally interfere whilst another character is speaking. This resembles the way that conversations are recalled and remembered – not as consistent, correctly spaced-out exchanges, but as a collection of responses, popping into one’s head arrhythmically. This is further supported by sudden cuts in the film’s timeline, which Young Woman is never a part of – she is often left confused, even alone in a room, whilst Jake and his parents have travelled in the future, or in the past. These jumps concur with the mother’s behaviour: her emotions are extreme and unsubstantiated, whether she is expressing sadness or joy. A theory would be that she is reiterating heightened parts of previous conversations, amalgamated in what the whole house scene essentially becomes: a memory stew. As Jessie Buckley’s character concludes, “humans cannot [live in the present].”
As Jessie Buckley’s character concludes, “humans cannot [live in the present].”
The film ends in a return to oneself, as young Jake disappears, and the Young Woman intercepts his old version whilst walking around the high school he ends up working in. It is not the janitor’s imminent death which both him and her end up lamenting as they part ways, but what the film’s early poem, Bonedog, draws upon: “Coming home is terrible.” As Young Woman’s idea of identity further disintegrates, it does so in a literal dance of death, which for the first time portrays Jake’s timeline in an objective, requiem-like way, followed by his performance of a lifetime in the form of a song from Oklahoma! on the Nobel stage. As Jake’s guardian angel, a maggot-infested pig, guides him into the afterlife, chanting liturgically (“everything is the same, when you look close enough”), the viewer is left exposed to the absurd, raw reality of death. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not at all about regret and loss – it is about our simultaneous freedom of choice and choicelessness. This becomes clear when thinking about the film’s portrayal of the consumption of media.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things manages to explore Jake’s identity in a non-invasive, unarrogant way. That is something worth remarking upon, since most films fail in trying to do this. John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, for instance, doesn’t achieve this feat. It’s a film about literary personalities, sure, and whilst its outright purpose is not as obviously personal as I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ portrayal of death, it inadvertently drives the viewer away through its pompous references to Yeats’ A Vision, or to Brahms. In fact, the viewer is not left with much to latch onto in terms of relatability, a mistake which I’m Thinking of Ending Things is very careful to avoid. To quote Karsten Runquist’s review of the Kaufman’s film, “You’re, in a sense, a product of everything you’ve experienced and latched onto”. What we choose to consume, in terms of people and the relationships we have with them, or media, is where choice comes in; or, rather, where some self-inflicted growth takes place. It becomes pretty clear by the end of the film that Jake was somewhat formed by Oklahoma!, for example. Even the Young Woman, born out of his pre-death fantasy, is immediately shaped by Jake’s choices: she becomes a poetess when his affinity for Wordsworth is mentioned, and a film critic when they talk about A Woman Under the Influence. Almost metatheatrically, when Jake’s choice of media influences Young Woman, it is only as a result of Old Jake regulating his own delirium.
Forgetting is completely out of our control; moreover, the fact that we register that we have forgotten something is somewhat of a slap in the face – at least if we didn’t, time would seem on our side
The film’s horror aspect, then, is not its depiction of death, but of choicelessness. It’s something that lingers in the background of every conversation that the character’s have – one could even argue that Young Woman is a personification of choicelessness. I’m Thinking of Ending Things obviously explores choicelessness in terms of one’s death and origins, but more importantly explores it in terms of one’s memory loss. It terrifyingly conveys a gradual disintegration of Jake’s interiority prior to dying, something which Jessie Buckley beautifully summarises when asked to describe her boyfriend by his older self: “It was so long ago, I barely remember […] I’m not even sure I registered him […] Anyway, I can’t remember what he looks like. Why would I?” Forgetting is completely out of our control; moreover, the fact that we register that we have forgotten something is somewhat of a slap in the face – at least if we didn’t, time would seem on our side. At the start of the film, we are told that Young Woman is “thinking about ending things”, or, as we come to learn, is thinking about things that are ending. By the end of the film, things have ended for both her and Jake. The punchline is that they now live within us.