Charlie Kaufman played with our emotions. We want to know why.
If you watched I'm Thinking of Ending Things on Netflix, then you probably had kind of a wild ride. You go in and out of the lives of different characters, there's some ballet, animation, it's all haywire. But I promise we're getting to that.
The brain behind the movie belongs to Kaufman.
He adapted the movie from Canadian writer Iain Reid’s 2016 novel. Yet this adaptation was not totally faithful.
Still, the central plot remains virtually unchanged. Jake (Jesse Plemons) takes newish girlfriend Lucy (Jesse Buckley) on a snowy drive to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Lucy, the narrator, has already considered dumping him. As this possibility settles in, the couple endures an awkward dinner, dessert, and then depart for a drive home that culminates with a detour to Jake’s high school. In the meantime, the school’s janitor (Guy Boyd) roams those hallways in a lonely nightly routine. They all eventually cross paths for a surreal climax.
[Editor's Note: Spoilers for I'm Thinking of Ending Things after this point...]
So How did Kaufman come up with this idea and why did he decide to pursue it?
Let's dig in.
How Charlie Kaufman Explains I'm Thinking of Ending Things
First, let's mention the key differences between the book and the movie. The climax. In Reid’s book, it's treated more like a psychological thriller. We get a literal shift in the POV of the story, and a clear explanation of who's really been our protagonist al along.
Jake is actually a younger version of the janitor himself. A version that actually tried to find love, like the guy in the rom-com he watches on TV.
But Jake doesn't find himself worthy of love, so even in his hallucination, his made-up girlfriend is thinking of ending things, while he is thinking of killing himself.
In the movie, Kaufman says “I don’t know if it was an epiphany or breakdown with ‘Adaptation,’ but since then, I’ve found that I’m most successful with adaptations when I allow myself to take it and do with it whatever makes sense to me,” he continued, “If I don’t allow that to happen, then I end up with something that feels dead to me.”
Kaufman spoke to IndieWire about the movie, the ending, and the process. I wanted to take some pull quotes from what he said and pick them apart.
The main questions I had about the film were about Lucy. If the reveal at the end is that Lucy is all part of a life Jack has hallucinated, why are we meeting her and hearing her thoughts?
Here's how Kaufman explains his choices there, “She is a device, but I wanted her to be able to separate herself from that,” Kaufman said. “I didn’t want it to be a twist. I felt like that would not work in a movie at this point in history. When you make a movie, everything that’s sort of ambiguous becomes concrete. You’ve got people playing these things. You can see them.”
I am not sure this qualifies as not being a twist, but I understand the intention.
Fleshing her out and giving her wants and desires also makes the depression of Jake all the more consuming. He wants to be anyone else than himself,.
So was she real? Kind of.
“To my mind, it would have been a misuse of any actress not to give them something to play that was real,” Kaufman said. “Because of the device that the book uses, it wasn’t required, and I needed it to be there.”
He goes on to double down on the fact that Lucy exists. “I needed her to have agency for it to work as a dramatic piece,” Kaufman said. “I really liked the idea that even within his fantasy, he cannot have what he wants. He’s going to imagine this thing, but then he’s going to also imagine how it won’t work, how she’s going to bored with him, how she’s going to not think he’s smart enough or interesting enough.”
This actually is a very clear vision of what he wants from the character and how it plays out.
One of the things I think the movie does really well is drifting us from one thought to the other. Like when they see Jake's bedroom and the Pauline Kael book is on the shelf. From that moment on Lucy basically transforms into Kael, repeating the review verbatim with a spot-on impersonation.
This is our first huge clue that Lucy is being manipulated by Jake's mind, and not by her own.
So why Kael?
“I’ve always liked her, and grew up with her and reading her, and thinking that she was smarter than I am,” said Kaufman, echoing the sentiment of many readers over the years. Jake seems to be one of them: After Lucy finishes her monologue about the movie, which he liked, he’s left speechless.
If Jake is left speechless by his own image we have to know why.
Again, Kaufman has more answers than my initial viewing of the movie.
“That goes toward the idea of Jake not being able to have anything that he wants,” Kaufman said. “He had this opinion about that movie and then failed. It’s an experience I’ve had — the idea that you like something, and then you read something by somebody that you really admire, and you feel like an idiot for liking that thing.”
There's a lot of media mixing in this feature.
One of the most prominent is that of Oklahoma. So why was this musical chosen as a partial score of the film? One that comprises an entire high school musical production at the end of the film as well.
The answer is in storytelling.
“There’s a few things in ‘Oklahoma!’ that felt like they were really kind of thematically parallel to the story that we were telling,” Kaufman said. As for the dream sequence: “I was always intrigued by it, because it’s so creepy, and I liked the idea of the doppelgänger aspect in it.”
Another part of the borrowed media is the entire Nobel speech from the movie A Beautiful Mind. The connection here is clear. Sure, there's a DVD in Jake's bedroom, but the essential part of that movie is a world made up inside a man's head.
Just like in our movie.
Kaufman is a maddening writer and director who often twists the story to make us challenge our preconceived notions about how stories unfold and how we identify with characters at the center of these stories.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things joins Anomalisa and Synecdoche, New York as work that drops from reality and winds up being almost entirely internal conflict. While I personally like them less than his work on Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I do think they force me to reconcile every line of dialogue and frame.
It will be interesting to see where Kaufman goes from here.
Did you enjoy the film? Got questions or have answers of your own?
Let us know in the comments.
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