By Charles Toh (21A01D)
Cover image by Clarice Tan (21A01C)
Spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things follow.
“I don’t like… what’s that called, abstract art? I could do abstract art. Couple strokes on a blank canvas, I call that a con job.”
She’s thinking of ending things.
What things, in particular—her life, her relationship?—are never made explicitly clear. And who exactly is she? Lucy? Louisa? Amy? The Young Woman, as the credits refer to her? Is she a character, in the conventional sense of the word, or a metaphorical projection of her boyfriend? And why on earth is there a seemingly unrelated storyline about a school janitor, or a laughably out of place musical dance sequence that dispels an hour and a half of building tension? All these questions and more are likely to stump a first-time viewer of Charlie Kaufman’s surreal psychological thriller, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which is currently available on Netflix.
Despite not enjoying much mainstream success, director and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has enjoyed significant underground acclaim from as far back as 1999, with his screenwriting debut in the black comedy Being John Malkovich. His collaborative and solo works have drawn frequent comparisons to some of history’s greatest surrealists, including David Lynch and Franz Kafka. Yet for someone whose career has been marked by puzzling, labyrinthian films (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind opts for a less cohesive narrative in favour of a dreamlike trip through the psyche of a patient whose memory is getting erased; Synecdoche, New York is told through the lens of a mentally ill film director who constructs a life-size replica of his city to block out the existential threat of an unexplained apocalypse as the lines between reality and imagination begin to blur), Kaufman’s latest offering may easily be his most experimental, unhinged and bleakest work to date.
Initially disguised as a rather straightforward road movie or romantic drama, the first 20 minutes of the film follow Jake and his girlfriend (the Young Woman) as they drive to meet his parents. Yet the immediate sense of unease is there. The film opens with a brief but ominous monologue by the Young Woman: “I’m thinking of ending things. Once this idea arrives, it lingers, it stays, it dominates… Is an unspoken idea original? Maybe this is how it was always going to end.”
As the scene shifts to the road—with her internal monologue shifting towards more concrete matters—she begins to express misgivings about her relationship, at which point the audience is lulled into a false sense of security that the rather chilling title of the film refers to nothing more than the end of a relationship. Notwithstanding this, the film seems off-beat from the start, as the conversations between Jake and his girlfriend shift abruptly in tone, mood and subject. One especially unsettling moment occurs when the Young Woman recites to Jake a particularly bleak poem that she claims to have written about mortality and loss, on the verge of tears, before immediately snapping back to her lighthearted, conversational tone.
It is when the film begins to focus on the conversation with Jake’s parents in his family home that the narrative of the film becomes increasingly distorted and surreal. The Young Woman’s name changes from Louisa, to Louise, then to Lucia. Her occupation, too, abruptly changes with no acknowledgement of any discontinuity, from a physicist to a poet to an artist. The poems she supposedly claimed to have written, and the paintings she supposedly drew, are revealed to be decade-old works by actual poets and artists, all culminating in the grand reveal of who the mysterious Young Woman actually is. Jake’s parents, too, seem to travel through time with no acknowledgement from the characters whatsoever, appearing middle-aged and healthy in one scene to senile and frail in the next. At one point, Jake’s mother appears to pass away in the middle of a scene. But immediately afterwards, on the return drive home, he comments jovially about the success of the visit, as though the tragedy never happened.
The third act of the film is where the strangest elements of the film come into play. The Young Woman and Jake make a detour to his old school in the middle of the night, and the film transforms from a psychological thriller to a full-blown, flamboyant musical number. This is swiftly followed by a scene where the school’s mysterious janitor, seen in randomly spliced vignettes prior to the movie’s conclusion, has an existential conversation with an animated pig.
All that being said, it’s easy to dismiss I’m Thinking of Ending Things as a load of pretentious nonsense crudely spliced together, eschewing rationality, convention and understandability in the name of high art. The overwhelmingly negative audience reception (47%) on Rotten Tomatoes compared to the generally positive critical reception (81%) reaffirms that this is a deliberately divisive film catered to a niche audience.
Furthermore, the film’s multiple literary references to the psychological drama filmmaker John Cassavetes, the postmodernist author David Foster Wallace and (perhaps most out of place) the lighthearted country musical Oklahoma! potentially loses whatever audience the film had in the first place due to the obscurity of the aforementioned references. Yet for enthusiasts of more cerebral, abstract films, I’m Thinking of Ending Things proves to be a viewing well worth the challenge, as the various clues scattered throughout the film begin to unravel the method behind the madness.
I recall my first viewing experience of the film vividly. After persevering through all 134 minutes of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I felt cheated of my time and bewildered, like I’d just been played a colossal prank on. Extremely acute viewers will likely still struggle to comprehend and rationalise the various curveballs thrown at them by the film, which can definitely cause one to feel frustrated at times. Despite all my above gripes, I couldn’t help but admire how elaborately the plot was structured, especially the way it expertly challenged all my preconceived notions about how a story could, or should be told. It was as if there was a profoundly moving masterpiece somewhere inside the film that I hadn’t quite deciphered yet.
In fact, after a week of compulsively rewatching I’m Thinking of Ending Things, it became more apparent that the entire film is not actually narrated from the perspective of the main characters, as one would expect, but rather from the perspective of a mysterious elderly janitor who appears only in brief scenes before the movie’s denouement. He is later revealed to be an aged version of Jake. Lonely and depressed, and nearing the end of his life, he begins to experience severe delusions. These delusions then form the core narrative of the film, and account for the seemingly random occurrences of illogical continuity errors, lapses in time and so on.
This explanation sounds simple enough—the things that our subconscious conjures up are often illogical and flat-out surreal. Any strangeness in the film can thus be attributed to the janitor’s failing mental health. But surely the recurring motifs throughout the film—the Young Woman’s fluid identity, the pig being eaten alive and so on—serve a greater purpose other than to confuse and bewilder the audience with the frequent occurrences of unlinked and out of place events?
The most obvious example of this would be the Young Woman’s lack of a concrete identity, shifting between names and occupations like quicksand. She isn’t so much of a character in the conventional sense as she is a haphazard collage of Jake’s idealised fantasies—the “perfect” girl, if you will. The entire first 90 minutes of the film are portrayed through the lens of the elderly Jake’s imagination: Jake as a decent-looking, introverted literature undergraduate student; and the Young Woman is assembled out of various works of art and literature that he has treasured over the years.
On a second viewing, this connection becomes significantly clearer. Midway through their meal, the scene cuts to the janitor watching a cheesy romance flick where the main characters meet in a cafe. Immediately cutting back to the “delusion” storyline, young Jake tells his parents he met the Young Woman at the exact same diner. This delusion finally collapses when young Jake vanishes into thin air and is replaced by the present-day janitor, and the Young Woman—once amicable and tender—rants passionately about how Jake supposedly stalked and threatened her, leaving her with no option but to date him to avoid meeting the same fate with even more dangerous men. The young version of Jake then reappears, and after a lengthy dance sequence, the janitor Jake kills his young projection, representing the cycle of disillusionment that the film gradually introduced finally coming full circle.
Confused? I know I was when I first watched it. Even most recently, on my fourth viewing, there are still some obscure references and motifs that hide themselves from easy interpretation.
If I had one criticism of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, it would be that the film occasionally comes across as self-indulgent, with Kaufman’s surrealist tendencies running amok without any rhyme or reason to this madness. The concept of elderly Jake idealising his perfect girlfriend through an assembled collage of memories, while an interesting one, at times becomes an outlet for Kaufman to indulge in his references to obscure literature, giving the film a somewhat pseudo-intellectual feel to it. Was the sequence where the Young Woman morphs into film critic Pauline Kael really necessary in contributing to the portrayal of elderly Jake’s declining mental health? Or was it merely a cleverly inserted easter egg for film buffs to catch and smile knowingly at each other?
Yet, all things considered, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a brilliant—if somewhat inaccessible to the mainstream audience due to its unconventional narrative structure and glacial pacing—addition to the canon of “unreliable narrator” films, one that pushes the very concept of an unreliable narrator to its extreme. Fans of cult films like Fight Club, The Sixth Sense or Memento will likely find this a fascinating, perplexing film open to endless interpretation.
While I’m Thinking of Ending Things is certainly a challenging watch, with its long takes, intertextuality and lack of any clear exposition, it remains one of the most striking explorations of mental health I’ve seen all year. Criticisms of pretension aside, if you’re already sold on a film told from the perspective of a dying janitor ruminating on his life’s failures in the form of extended mental delusions, the occasional ostentatiousness of Kaufman’s scriptwriting likely won’t detract from the overall brilliance of his latest offering.