SPOILER ALERT: Proceed with caution!
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” by acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, adapted from the book by Iain Reed, is about a young woman who goes to meet her boyfriend of a month and a half, Jake (Jesse Plemmons)’s parents, after she has decided to herself that she will end things. We meet the young woman (Jessie Buckley) standing on a sidewalk under light snowfall. After a few moments, we cut to an apartment building she looks up at, then cut to an old man staring out of those apartment windows; when we cut back to the woman, it feels like he’s staring down at her. Throughout the film, the couples’ story is interspersed with this old man’s life soon to be revealed to be a janitor of a local high school, and of no relationship, seemingly, to the couple.
Kaufman’s fame comes from his crafting of existential tales, his visceral editing, manipulation of set design, and disorienting sound to create dreamlike worlds where his characters confront existential issues. He is more direct here, and the chaos of this world is here to do one thing: help us.
During the drive, the young woman contemplates their relationship, while they converse about her studies in physics, philosophies, Jake’s love of musicals, poetry, and life. As they talk, topics that come up will come up again in different forms. Jake mentions a poem by William Wordsworth that has her name, Lucy, in it, then five minutes later someone named Lucy calls her. Kaufman’s pacing and camera work bring the weirdness of this world through. There’s a feeling of circularity that’s visceral and it brings you deeper into this ride of uncertainty. On the drive, Lucy ends up on the idea that “Jake is nice but it’s not going anywhere.” As they continue to talk they begin to misunderstand each other, and her fear of monotony and Jake’s insecurity about things in life going wrong, start to show. Here as well, things grow uncomfortable.
They arrive at Jake’s parents’ house. When Lucy is introduced to Jake’s folks–a goofy, offbeat, couple played by Toni Collette and David Theylis – and her name changes, to Lucia, unconcernedly to her. Upon greeting there is a strangeness between Jake and his parents. He moves out of the way when his mother goes to kiss him, and begrudgingly shakes his father’s hand who isn’t looking at him. It seems like work for the family to give, and to not have their needs met at the same time. Jake goes off to the dinner table, the parents make a joke, and then something strange happens – Jake’s father who looks more like a great grandpa on the first meet, ages to look young like his wife. There’s no comment on it. Lucy turns to see the food out on the table and Jake’s parents staring at her. It’s showtime.
The dinner is rife with awkwardness. Beneath the conversation about Lucy’s life, there is pain, unforgiveness, and expectation festering within the family. When asked to tell the story of how they met, Lucia, tells of their meeting at a trivia night and it brings up a scarring memory for Jake -he won a diligence pin instead of an acumen pin while playing a trivia game as a child. When his mother mistakes “genus” for genius for a type of game brand, Jake slams the table. The parents react as if his actions are something that rules them.
By the end of dinner Jake’s mother ages. She looks like a tortured version of herself, hair grey and wild, teeth discolored. At dessert, Lucy urges that they should leave, and again her plans become futile as the family disappears and she is forced to look for Jake.
She finds a room labeled “Jake’s Childhood Room” where age-inappropriate tapes and books on philosophy, poetry, science, outnumber the amount of toys. The sight is saddening. Whenever she locates Jake, he and his parents are in different stasis – Jake’s emotions change and the parents are at different stages of their lives. Lucy begins to contemplate further what she really wants, confused, trying to reach a concrete feeling while she goes up and down the stairs.
It becomes hard to tell when these changes will stop, but it’s fine. We’re seeing an unlayering. Even though the night is not fun, Lucy begins to see into Jake and herself.
Heading home, they converse about the parents, Jake’s praise and sympathy for a woman character from a John Cassavetes film, which Lucy quotes the film critic Pauline Kael on the movie and severs Jake’s connection to the woman character, takes down his ego, opens him up to new ideas, and starts to remember what she’s capable of. They reach a point where Jake begins to describe what he fears, and what gives him purpose. Lucy looks lovingly while listening to him. This scene is where Kaufman’s main point is exemplified: for good, for bad, in indecision, single or taken, the need of other people is a must.
Plemmons here is outstanding in bringing complexity to the sad boy type. Jake isn’t easy to like. He can be pompous and self-centered, but it’s possible through Plemmons’ minimal facial and body movement, and to quickly jump to and from emotions, brings the forgotten side of Jake to life. Lucy then attempts with the most confidence she’s had to break up with him, but they arrive at a Dairy Queen-like store for more dessert.
Nearing the end of the film, Jake goes into his old high school and Lucy goes to look for him and walks right into the production of musical Oklahoma. In the final act, Jake assumes the main role and sings a song as part of a speech that is one of the most moving I’ve seen in cinema. It is also the most accountable, most determined, a guy has ever been in his romantic trope of the big speech. I’m thinking of ending things’ message is that Light is found through and created from darkness, not avoiding it. And when we choose to follow a choice no matter how unpleasant and when we choose to control what we can, that leads to continuous growth; it leads us and leads others to freedom. Mostly promoted as a horrible time, I’m thinking of ending things is one of the most hopeful films of the year.