The Fatal Flaws in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
Spoilers ahead. Also, content warning for depression and suicide.
If Charlie Kaufman’s most recent film had come out in the first 3 months of this year, I might have appreciated it a bit more. I might have had the privileged patience to sift through the pretentious poetry recitations during tense-yet-still-boring car trips, contemporary dance fights between a janitor and a man in a puffy vest, and obscure Broadway musical references. But after everything that 2020 has enlightened and brought to attention, I just don’t have the mental or emotional space to care about the psychological roller coaster that is I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
For the reader who’s moved past the spoiler warning without having seen the film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a semi-non-linear movie based on a book by Iain Reid that seems to be about a young couple (Jake and a woman of many given names) driving out for dinner with the boyfriend’s parents. On the way, they reflect on the bleak landscape, wax philosophical, recite a little Wordsworth, and suffer a great deal of uncomfortable silence while the girlfriend contemplates “ending things”.
The parents are unsettling caricatures of stereotypical film-parents, the mother laughing way too hard and for far too long at small jokes, and the father only contributing vague remarks of no substance or meaning. Eventually, reality begins to crumble and distort around the girlfriend, with the parents shifting between various ages until the woman must pull her boyfriend away from feeding his fading mother so that the couple can leave. Before leaving, the woman finds clues that her life might not be her own and she may be occupying the life of her boyfriend instead.
They embark on another cold, tense car ride presumably heading home, but not before taking an unexpected detour to an isolated ice cream shop run by high school girls who seem strangely familiar to Jake. One of the girls hints to the girlfriend that something is amiss, but we’re not shown what. After a final car ride to Jake’s old high school to throw out the melted uneaten ice cream, the woman is left by herself to wander into the school, meeting a janitor who has shown up in hitherto unexplained flashbacks. After a long dance routine chronicling Jake’s death at the hands of the janitor, the girl disappears completely, as the story closes on the revelation that all the events of the film were imagined, the product of the janitor’s contemplations of suicide.
I will admit that such a linear description of this film does not sufficiently express its absurdity and surrealness. Secondly, it must be made clear that this is indeed a well-made movie, with stellar acting, beautiful cinematography, and a well-executed narrative structure, if one might be so bold to attribute “structure” to this narrative. My problems with I’m Thinking of Ending Things are with its thematic choices; what the movie chooses to be about, and the statement (or lack thereof) it makes on those themes.
I have no problem with a television show or film tackling issues like mental health and suicide. In fact, I am glad that so many artists are able to work through/express their experiences with these things via their art.
Unfortunately, a concerning pattern has arisen in much of it: many studios, directors, and writers do not seem aware of the responsibility that comes with creative commentary on mental health, particularly on suicide. Those who struggle with those things flock to this type of media for a sense of recognition, comfort, and perhaps hope. I’m Thinking of Ending Things does not necessarily comfort, and the only hope that might be found is the ambiguous ending, which neither confirms nor denies the janitor’s decision for or against suicide.
Therein lies the danger; those who may not be ready or able to surmise life in such a vague ending are in fear of deducing that for the janitor, death was the answer. And if death is the answer for him, why not the same for them? Is an otherwise rather abstract and obscure story worth the risk of advertising suicide?
My second qualm with the film is what it does with its main female character. While her occasional poetic recitations definitely rolled my eyes, I was intrigued by her odd sense of humour and the way she interacts with Jake and his parents. She is calm, but not stoic or emotionally lacking. She is also curious enough that the surreality of the film’s world does not scare her away. She is the kind of character that an audience member, if able to parse through the moments of pretense, would have a very fun time relating to.
There is a scene where she processes anxieties regarding her relationship with Jake as she paces down the stairs, and keeps looping back to the top. It’s an undeniably brilliant part of the movie, save for that it leads up to the most disappointing part of the movie. She goes to open the basement door, which the film has framed in a particularly ominous light, and upon reaching the basement, finds that she is living Jake’s life. The film goes on to reveal that the girl (again, never given a definitive name) is a fictional, idealized version of herself in the janitor’s mind.
Her only purpose turns out to be guiding the audience not to her reclamation of agency in a world seemingly ruled by chaos and incongruity, but to the mental state of an old man we’re given minimal time to care about. This is a waste of Jessie Buckley’s beautiful performance and marks this film as another in a long line of stories whose female characters only serve as framing devices for their male counterparts.
If this were a review of the film rather than a critique, I would have certainly spent some time on the remarkable elements of this film. The cinematography, narrative structure, and all of the acting performances are absolutely worthy of praise. If I could have liked this movie, it would become one of my all-time favourites. Instead, the whole feels lesser than the sum of its parts, largely due to the disappointing narrative choices which steer it to its final destination. This is a well-made movie, but I cannot call it worth watching.