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Film / I'm Thinking of Ending Things

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"...Once this thought arrives, it stays.
It sticks, lingers, dominates."

"Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions. Their lives a mimicry. Their passions a quotation."

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a 2020 film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. His third film after Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa (in part), it was adapted from the novel of the same name by Iain Reid. Following announcement of its production in 2018, it was released on September 4th, 2020 by Netflix.

It revolves around a young woman (Jessie Buckley) driving with her new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) at their remote farm in the middle of a snowstorm, all the while apprehensive as she has been having second thoughts about their relationship. The ensuing interaction only makes things more stressful from there.

As is par for the course for Kaufman, the film is both incredibly surreal and notoriously hard to categorize, perhaps more so than any of his previous works. It has been summed up as a psychological drama, but has also received a range of labels including surrealism, postmodernism, psychological horror/thriller, and black comedy.

This film contains examples of:

  • All Just a Dream: Everything that happens in the film was just the fantasy of The Janitor.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Jake's parents start out as socially awkward farm folk who laugh in all the wrong places and regale the young woman with embarrassing anecdotes about Jake. Then they slowly become more unsettling as the dinner descends into Surreal Horror.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Was the janitor Driven to Suicide like his book counterpart? Or did he freeze to death in the snow when his truck wouldn’t start? The final shot of the janitor's truck makes it clear he never left the school, but the sounds of an engine turning can be heard during the credits. But then there's his hallucination of him going back into the school with an animated pig.
  • Author Avatar: In-Universe. Jake is the younger and more successful mental projection of the Janitor. How much they actually resemble each other and how much of Jake's personality is made-up is up for debate.
  • Bland-Name Product: Tulsey Town, an ice cream chain where the thick 'Brrr's are served upside down, allude to Dairy Queen and its Blizzards.note 
  • Body Horror: Jakes tells a story about his father discovering that the two pigs on their farm were suffering from fly strike and were being eaten alive by maggots.
  • Bottle Episode: Aside from the dinner at Jake's parents' house, a stop at Tulsey Town, and the ending, the entire movie takes place in Jake's car as he and his girlfriend drive to and then from his parents' house.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: The young woman eventually reveals that while she's been a core fantasy for Jake for untold years, she never even noticed him in the bar and forgot about him almost instantly as he was just one face among many others.
  • Creepy Family: Jake's parents while friendly seem detached and slightly... off.
  • Dead All Along: It's heavily implied that Jake's parents died many years ago which is why their ages keep changing randomly throughout the dinner. It appears that he regrets not being able to bring a girl home to meet them when they were alive and so fantasizes an entire meeting between them.
    • Additionally, when the young woman is looking through Jake's childhood bedroom, a shot of the bookshelf contains an urn of ashes labeled "Jimmy," the dog she was petting a few minutes earlier.
  • Deconstruction: The film deconstructs wish-fulfillment and the ways people use it to ignore the pains, frustrations and regrets that come from real life.
  • Decoy Protagonist: We're led to believe that the film is about the woman's strange encounter with Jake's family and her struggle to break up with him while it's really all about Jake and his viciously unstable mental state. Also that the entire movie is basically the daydream of a depressed elderly janitor, who Jake represents.
  • Dream Ballet: When the young woman finds Jake at the school, doppelgangers of the two perform a surreal dream ballet homaging Oklahoma!, with the young woman as Laurey, Jake as Curly, and the janitor as Jud.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Multiple meanings, really. For most of the film, we think the title refers to the woman's desire to break up with Jake. By the end however, it turns out the title refers to the Janitor's desire to end his own life.
    • The woman is thinking about lots of things that are ending.
    • The woman is thinking of ending things. As in she is the thought itself.
  • Downer Ending: We find out that both Jake and the young woman were just the creations of the Janitor, a lonely elderly man who has spent decades imagining the life he could have had in the form of Jake, and their weekend has been imagined as a way of the Janitor struggling with his suicidal thoughts with the finale implying he will take his own life.
  • Driven to Suicide: The whole film is revealed to be a fantasy of the janitor as he contemplates whether to take his own life. We never find out if he does or not.
  • Dull Surprise: Throughout the film the young woman reacts to the bizarre events surrounding her with mild uneasiness and confusion rather than outright fear or shock.
  • Dying Dream: It's revealed at the end that all the events of the film were just the fantasies of The Janitor as he is about to take his own life.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: The bizarre situations, frequent character changes and the almost schizophrenic dialogue makes a lot more sense once it's revealed that the woman isn't a real person and the entire film is just a prolonged hallucination of the Janitor.
  • Fan Disservice: The Janitor takes all his clothes off and spends the last few minutes naked. It's rather disturbing and depressing rather than appealing, due to The Janitor having some hallucinations due to hypothermia and him being an out-of-shape old man.
  • Foreshadowing: There are many hints throughout the film that Jake and the Woman are not real and are merely figments of the Janitor's imagination.
    • The most obvious clue is that the woman's name, profession and interests keep changing randomly, hinting that she is a made-up person whose personal traits the Janitor cannot keep straight.
    • Similarly, her outfits change rather dramatically between scenes. Special mention goes to a gorgeous pearl necklace she only wears in one scene and her two winter coats being entirely different color schemes.
    • Whenever the woman thinks "I'm thinking of ending things", Jake immediately interrupts her even if she never says it out loud. This is the Janitor arguing with his own subconscious about whether or not to kill himself.
    • On that same note, whenever the woman attempts to bring up any thoughts related to death or "ending things" in the car, the two of them abruptly seem to arrive at their destination. This is also an attempt by the Janitor to immediately distract himself from suicidal thoughts whenever they emerge.
    • Near the beginning, Jake repeats almost exactly what the Janitor sees in the high school to the woman as if he really was the Janitor.
    • Jake at one point lists all of the musicals that he knows. They all happen to be musicals that are often performed at a high school level, and we see the Janitor watching the kids at his high school practicing Oklahoma!.
    • The woman goes inside Jake's bedroom and basement and finds many famous paintings, poems and film reviews that she had previously or later claimed to be her own. Of course, the Janitor would want his perfect imaginary girlfriend to have all the exact same interests that he does.
    • The woman finds three Janitor's uniforms in Jake's washing machine. This is because Jake is merely the Janitor's projection of a younger version of himself.
    • At one point, the woman's physical appearance changes into the female lead in the film the Janitor watches. It appears that the Janitor's fantasy changes depending on the type of media he consumes.
    • The three girls working at Tulsey Town are students that the janitor passes in the hallways of the school.
  • Genre-Busting: A psychological romantic drama with surrealist/postmodern overtones alongside elements of black comedy, horror and thriller that spends a sizable part of its runtime as a road movie.
  • Grand Romantic Gesture: In the Robert Zemeckis film the janitor watches, the young man grandiosely confesses his love to a woman while she's waitressing at a diner. It gets her fired.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: While listening to a song from Oklahoma! on the radio, Jake says he doesn't really know any musicals before listing the "few" that he does know, which happens to be a very long list.
  • Incompatible Orientation: When the woman talks to the janitor at the end and reveals that she doesn't even remember what Jake looks like, he was just a random face in the crowd to her; she notes she was at the bar because she was celebrating her anniversary with her girlfriend, meaning he wouldn't have had any chance with her even if he had worked up the courage to ask her out. She, only a moment later, contradicts herself by referencing having had a boyfriend at the time, though.
  • Inkblot Cartoon Style: The Tulsey Town commercial seen is a Retraux cartoon akin to the Golden Age of Animation, with a Betty Boop-esque fairy queen singing about Tulsey Town and followed by little children drawn in inkblot style — pie eyes, white-gloved four-fingered hands, and rubber hose limbs.
  • Lighter and Softer: The film is much less dark than the book especially the scenes in the school. While the school scenes are played for horror in the book the film portrays these scene in a way that is more wistful and subdued. The ending is also less dark; while the book ends with the young woman realizing she isn't real and the janitor stabbing himself in the neck with a coat hanger, it's more ambiguous if the janitor ultimately dies in the film.
  • Mad Dreamer: The janitor; having lived a lonely and unfulfilling life creates fantasies in his head of having brought a girl home to meet his parents when he was younger.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Jake is a socially awkward young man, while his girlfriend is a vivacious, intelligent young woman. His mother is delighted that he met someone as lively and intelligent as her. Later, though, it is heavily implied that the young woman isn't real, instead an idealized encounter of a real person he briefly interacted with once, brought to life by the films and literature he consumes — which why she takes on characteristics of the fiction they discuss and the works seen in his room.
  • Meet Cute: Ambiguous Situation version. When begged by Jake's mother for a cute meeting story, the young woman describes meeting Jake at trivia night at a bar; they had been attracted to each other but Jake had initially been too shy to ask for her number before finally doing so. But later, when talking to the janitor, the woman seems to spiral and admit that they had barely interacted at the bar, implying that she is an idealized fantasy of what might have been.
  • Meet the In-Laws: Jake is bringing his new girlfriend home to meet his parents. The dinner that proceeds is increasingly awkward and surreal.
  • Messy Maggots: Jake tells the young woman a story about his parents' pigs being infested with maggots while alive. The janitor later hallucinates said pig, bleeding onto the school floors as it walks.
  • Mind Screw: As expected for a Kaufman film. Highlights include Jake's parents rapidly aging and reverting, the animated maggot-infested pig that talks in a man's voice, the ending...
  • Mood-Swinger: Literally everyone except Jake. The woman changes her personality and interests in the middle of a conversation while Jake's parents take this up a notch and not only change their mood suddenly but age backwards and forwards frequently as well. Of course, this is because the former never existed in the first place and the latter two were long dead.
  • Nameless Narrative: Other than Jake, no character is given an actual name. The woman's name varies from scene to scene while "Yvonne" from the Robert Zemeckis film is most likely a character name rather than her real name. By the end, it's unclear if Jake is even his real name as Jake is merely a projection of the Janitor's subconscious.
  • Naked Nutter: The Janitor starts stripping himself naked in his car (due to hypothermia) begins hallucinating about him going back to school and meets a maggot-infested pig while in the nude.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The eerie, disturbing music and seemingly menacing antics highlighted in the trailer suggest that the film borders on horror, or at least thriller. The tone of the actual movie is considerably more muted, and almost completely non-threatening.
  • Obliquely Obfuscated Occupation: The young woman continuously alludes to work that has to be done, but what exactly she does keeps changing — she's either a student studying neurobiology/quantum physics/gerontology, an artist who writes poems/paints, or a waitress. This is a sign that she likely isn't real.
  • Poster-Gallery Bedroom: Played in a way that tips off both the young woman and the audience that something's amiss — Jake's childhood room is full of literature and films, including collections by Eva HD, William Wordsworth, and Pauline Kael, which the young woman quotes or he discusses. While this shows he's an intelligent loner, it also heavily implies that the young woman isn't real, characterized instead by the media he consumes.
  • Red Herring: The film sets up the basement as hiding something deeply monstrous but there's just a washing machine and some paintings down there.
  • Roger Rabbit Effect: Played for Horror. Briefly, following a mental breakdown, the janitor seemingly hallucinates the animated maggot-infested pig and follows it into the school.
  • Sanity Slippage: The Movie. The woman slowly loses her grip on reality and everything starts making less and less sense as she begins to forget who she is. As she isn't real, the real Sanity Slippage is suffered by the Janitor whose desire to kill himself grows stronger and stronger. A clue that his mind is starting to go is when Jake calls the woman "Ames/Amy". While her name has changed before, it was a variation on the name "Lucy". Him calling her "Amy", which is a huge departure from "Lucy" shows that even he can't remember anything right anymore. And then there's the pig at the end...
  • Shout-Out: Many. Their abundance is a key part of the film's themes, as it questions how much of the Janitor's own identity is comprised of the media he consumes.
    • Paintings shown or talked about in the film include Wanderer above the Sea of Fog and Christina's World.
    • Jake discusses Oklahoma! when a song from it plays on the radio, the janitor watches a production of it, a Dream Ballet echoing the show's is performed, and at the end Jake sings "Lonely Room".
    • Other works and creators referenced by the couple in the car include poems by William Wordsworth about an idealized woman named Lucy, David Foster Wallace, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's theory of color, and Ice by Anna Kavan.
    • The janitor watches a film supposedly directed by Robert Zemeckis. It is not good.
    • The young woman quotes the poem "Bonedog" by Eva HD, and a review of A Woman Under the Influence by Pauline Kael.
    • Jake has a copy of A Beautiful Mind in his room and in the last scene Jake gives nearly the exact same Nobel prize acceptance speech as John Nash does in the final scene of that film. Russell Crowe and the other actors in that film's Nobel prize scene are made unconvincingly to appear decades older; as such, Jake and the audience also appear in unconvincing old person makeup.
  • Stylistic Suck: The film by Robert Zemeckis that the janitor watches on his lunch break is a corny and saccharine romantic comedy in which a hardworking waitress's boyfriend sabotages her job to show how much he loves her. Like in so many romantic comedies his crappy behavior is treated like a grand romantic gesture rather than something unhealthy and inappropriate.
  • Sudden Name Change: Played for Drama — the young woman is called "Lucy", "Lucia", "Louisa", and "Ames" by Jake at various points. This is an unsettling detail that hints all is not as it appears.
  • The Stinger: Partway through the credits the sounds of car engine turning over can be heard throughout the rest of them.
  • Take That!: The appearance of the Robert Zemeckis directorial credit at the end of the film mentioned in Stylistic Suck acts as a punchline. Kaufman clarified in an interview that he didn't mean for it to be a mean spirited jab, he just thought it was funny (it came about after the end credits of Contact were used as a placeholder and Kaufman found it hilarious so decided to use it for real), and other names like Martin Scorsese's would have made the scene too obvious as a joke. For the record, Zemeckis himself signed off on the joke after Kaufman called him up and asked. Zemeckis is even thanked in the end credits.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: The Janitor seems to genuinely believe that the woman is his girlfriend and he took her to meet his (likely already deceased) parents. It's not until the end where she tells him point-blank that absolutely nothing happened between her and "Jake" that night in the bar that he understands that it was all a hallucination.
  • Title Drop: The young woman's internal narration admits early on that she's thinking of ending things with Jake.
  • Uncanny Valley Makeup: Used in one of the movie's final scenes, Jake, the young woman, Jake's parents, and everyone in the auditorium has age make-up on, the kind you'd likely find worn in a high school play. But it's only their faces that have been aged, creating this effect.
  • Uncertain Doom: The film ends with it ambiguous if Jake/The Janitor follows through with taking his own life.