My notes (spoilery) on I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s film is based on a novel by Iain Reid – which perhaps explains why his present-and-correct usual concerns with the interplay of the artist’s life and the worlds created in fiction (his previous work includes Adaptation., Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa) are infused with new angles, most notably a female narrator (though this might be deceptive) and a sense of horror film chill and menace. It even has some kinship with Nocturnal Animals, though its games with what’s really happening at what level of fictionality are far more intricate – though this is still a puzzle film, which trusts or assumes the viewer will supply the Rosebud connection that allows reassembly of all the bits and pieces into the dying reverie of a school janitor who may or may not once have had a girlfriend who dumped him after an evening with his parents.
The janitor (Guy Boyd) is seen initially only in tiny, snippet-like scenes as he shuffles around high school – sneered at by mean girls, watching a rehearsal for a production of Oklahoma! (often staged because the setting is Oklahoma) or the end of a Robert Zemeckis rom-com (a typically bitchy Kaufman touch) as he eats alone in the cafeteria. Meanwhile, in what seems to be a more substantial storyline, Lucy (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend-of-a-few-months Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving through snow to have a meal at the farm Jake grew up on and meet his parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis). We get Lucy’s interior monologue, and she is already set on ending not her life but the relationship – which at first seems harsh since she admits Jake’s a decent guy and they seem to have a rapport of equals chatting about her high-end academic work (though the discipline shifts – as does her name, which is sometimes Louise) and the poems of William Wordsworth.
At the farm, the parents are smiley-creepy and alternately oversolicitous and hostile, but their ages fluctuate from scene to scene (or shot to shot), giving Lucy a sense of the gaps in her own consciousness. Buckley seems to be surprised, puzzled and irritated by edits – with each scene and sometimes each new shot jumping her past a realisation or explanation she now can’t recall. An early tour of the snowbound, death-haunted out-buildings sets up ventures into Jakes’s Childhood Bedroom (so labelled because an older Father is in early stages of Alzheimer’s and needs notes up everywhere – though it’s also as preserved as Norman Bates’ was in Psycho) and an ominous basement Jake is afraid of. Lucy is accomplished – at various times, she recites her own poetry, talks high-flown science and shows photos of her paintings – but her accomplishments always turn out to be someone else’s work. We see a copy of a Pauline Kael book in Jake’s room and on the snowier drive home Lucy parrots a review of A Woman Under the Influence in a hectoring tone that hammers Jake’s presumably shallower reading of the film, and it starts to seem like Lucy for all her interiority (the film seems to be in her head and voice) is a projection. Maybe she’s a fantasy, fused with a girl who once gave Jake her number out of politeness at a pub quiz night but is actually in a relationship with another woman (her phone has a number of missed calls from a woman friend, though whenever she does answer she gets a male stalker voice).
Lucy gets more insistent on getting home tonight and Jake keeps not listening, stopping at an unlikely, eerie out-of-the-way ice cream parlour in the middle of a blizzard and then taking a detour to his old high school to get rid of the still-full, too-sweet ice cream containers … which leads to Lucy meeting the janitor, a fantasy ballet trio (using a device from the film version of Oklahoma! of dancers replacing the actors) that climaxes with the janitor stabbing Jake (his own younger self?) and a finish in which Jake in stage old age make-up (along with all the other characters) accepts a prestigious award and then, in the same mode, performs Jud’s ‘In My Room’ song from the stage version of Oklahoma! (cut in the film) to suggest the kind of trapped, yearning, dreaming, incipiently violent loser he feels he really is. After that, there’s a snow-covered vehicle in the car park at dawn. We draw our own conclusions – but, inset, are dramatic, conversational scenes that at once feel real and have a sense of cosmic horror. Long sequences just involve Plemons and Buckley in the car, driving through snow, talking – grown perhaps out of posthumous fantasy horror films like Wind Chill and Dead End – but other set-pieces, like the elaborate meal where no one seems to eat any of the food and the disorienting visit to the Lynchian ice cream stand, ramp up the feel of characters being surreally rude to Lucy as if (again) she hasn’t been given the information she needs to interpret other people’s behaviour.
So, is Lucy not real – or, rather, less real than other fictional characters played by actors in a film based on a novel? In one of the key moments of this level-of-reality/careful-what-you-wish-for sub-genre, the second act curtain of JM Barrie’s Dear Brutus, an idealised daughter wished into existence pleads ‘I don’t want to be a might-have-been’ as she’s winked out of existence by the undoing of the spell, a moment granting her self-awareness … Lucy never quite gets that, but the horror film feel of her ordeal over the evening also exposes the way Kaufman views the act of wishing up a female companion is also tinged with misogyny and threat – if she’s imaginary, Jake is also pre-emptively imagining that she’ll ditch him and simmering with a masochist resentment that involves all sorts of microaggressions and a possibility that the title does mean what we thought it meant in the first place.
In the book it’s made clear at the very end that Lucy ( who is never named) is a figment of Jake’s imagination and that he likely kills himself at the High School. Interestingly the book’s scenes at the school have a vivid horror movie vibe that would have filmed well but I guess they were too on the nose for Kaufman.
I agree, although Kaufman probably did himself a great disservice by turning the janitor into a musical theatre buff instead. I can easily imagine an audience expecting a “Sixth Sense” twist at the end and having to endure a ballet plus a showtune instead. I personally was completely floored by the utter longing and desperation he managed to convey through that medium.
I will see anything with David Thewlis in it.