On the surface, Charlie Kaufman’s newest book-to-film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about a simple road trip where a boyfriend is taking his girlfriend home to meet his parents. But it doesn’t take too much time with the psychological thriller to realize that something… is not right here. The film dropped on Netflix on September 4, and while it’s exciting for a Kaufman flick to premiere on Netflix, tried and true fans know that the deeper you get into Kaufman’s filmography, the more confused your going to be. The director is notorious for his avant-garde approach to storytelling, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things might be his most far-out adventure yet.
In our profile of Jesse Plemons, he suggests that much of the film is left open for interpretation, saying, “Watching it again, it felt different. It is dependent on where you are in life and where your brain and psyche is, you know?” But that doesn’t change that the source material might have set up expectations—fans of the book might also have some doubts about the film’s ambiguous ending. All of this is to say, we have some major theories, backstory, and questions to break down. Of course, be warned: moving forward, there are massive spoilers for the book and film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
What is Actually Going On?
Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is not a film you watch with a phone in hand. The subtle clues about what (might be) happening are all over the place from moment go. The film starts with Jake (Jesse Plemons) picking up his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) for a trip home. In a seemingly stream of conscious voiceover, the girlfriend says, “I’m thinking of ending things.” But that voiceover is often seemingly herd by Jake, even though his girlfriend never said it out loud.
Oh, and the reason she’s “his girlfriend.” It’s never quite certain what her name is. At one point, it’s Lucy. But then a “Lucy” calls her phone. Actually, her name shifts throughout the entire film. Once they arrive at Jake’s home and family farm, the surrealism intensifies. His parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) shift in age throughout the entire film. Lucy’s profession shifts—sometimes she’s a physicist. Or a painter. Or a poet.
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But the linchpin in all of this story is that intermittently, the film shifts to a lonely janitor at a high school. At one point, he is in a break room watching a romantic comedy starring two people who look an awful lot like Jake and his girlfriend. Another time, he’s watching students rehearse for Oklahoma! at the high school. His moments are brief, but important.
What Does the Book Ending Say?
In the book, when Jake and his girlfriend leave his parents’ house, they make a stop at a high school, where Jake goes in. His girlfriend follows him in after a while, but feels like she is being followed. What it all ends up culminating in is a moment where the girlfriend realizes that she and Jake are the same person. They meet in the janitor’s closet, and soon after, the janitor himself appears and hands the girlfriend a clothes hanger, which she uses to fatally stab herself in the neck with.
This ultimately means that Jake, too, killed himself. In the end, when his body is found, they discover that Jake, his girlfriend, and the janitor are all one in the same. Jake was a brilliant student but became unraveled and lonely, living a life full of regrets. His girlfriend was a woman he once met at a bar that he never approached. Jake was the manifestation of the man he could have been. The janitor, his reality.
How Does The Movie Ending Line Up With That?
Kaufman takes some wildly fun liberties with that book ending. It’s important to note that in the film, Jake and his girlfriend drove up in a sedan. The film never gets as overt as the book does (which is saying something because the book ending is still pretty nuanced). Instead, when Jake and his girlfriend find themselves at the high school, the two of them take form as another couple that engage in a contemporary dance routine that outlines the rest of their life together. The dance leads to them to a gym where another, more svelte janitor (I know, hang in there), dance battles New Jake and eventually stabs him to death and leaves him to die in the snow, which has since started falling from the gym ceiling.
Afterward, the real janitor goes to his truck outside and gets completely undressed as he watches flashbacks of his life unfold in front of him, unable to tell which were imagined and which were real. The delusions devolve into a cartoon, and then an animated pig appears and leads the naked janitor back into the high school. He takes one final form as an elderly version of Jake, accepting a Nobel prize for physics to a black-tie audience of his peers. He ends his acceptance with a performance of “Lonely Room” from Oklahoma!
This is where the nuance of Oklahoma! comes in. The song, as originally staged in the musical, is about Jud wanting to break out of his routine and find a woman and a life to call his own. More importantly, it’s sung right after the song “Pore Jud is Daid,” which is the song where Curly and Jud consider how the best way to be appreciated is for Jud to simply hang himself and be done with it, making everyone realize how much they meant to him.
After Jake receives a standing ovation, the screen fades to daylight, revealing Jake’s snow covered sedan. It’s unclear who, if anyone, is in the car and which reality was true.
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