Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a rollercoaster, to say the least. Based on a novel by the same name, the idiosyncratic Netflix film certainly makes a strong effort to say something fresh about hopes and dreams, but some of the more jarring twists and turns that the film takes in arriving there upset what could have otherwise been a very pleasant, cathartic journey.
Charlie Kaufman’s film adaptation of Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things tells the story of a young couple, Jake (Jesse Plemmons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley), referred to as the Young Woman. The two travel to dinner at Jake’s parents’ house where Jake will introduce her to his parents for the first time, and over the course of the drive, the girlfriend considers breaking up with him, or simply, is thinking of ending things. What ensues is a night of awkward conversations and repetitive red flags popping up in the girlfriend’s mind as she continues to find herself more and more confused as to why she is with Jake.
The acting in this film is phenomenal. Plemmons and Buckley’s chemistry feels incredibly natural, as if they were in the same circumstances as their characters. Toni Colette and David Thewlis, who play Jake’s parents, create an uncomfortable tone that will stick with the viewer for the duration of the film, even when they are offscreen. The entire cast, from the leads to the workers at the ice cream shop, play into the uneasiness in such a way that allows for complete immersion into the film.
The film’s score is quite different than the overall tone. For instance, songs from the musical Oklahoma! make an appearance, as well as a ballet sequence accompanied with a delightful tune from a piano. These songs bring to light even more tension, as they simply don’t fit with the setting. While a bit confusing at times, this film’s score leave viewers in a trance, allowing for further immersion into the story.
What really stands out is the film’s writing. Those who have read the novel will quickly pick up on the similarities in the couples’ conversations between the two mediums. The dialogue between Jake and the Young Woman feels natural in an almost unsettling way, much like their acting. The scene that best encompasses Kaufman’s writing is the scene at the dinner table. Combined with the stunning acting, the writing is one of the best elements within the film.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is complicated. It discusses humanity and the importance of authentic relationships, as well as loneliness and the effects it has on the human condition. While beautiful stylistically and with its message, it falls short near the end of the third act. At times it feels messy and over-the-top. Ultimately, the film is worth a watch, but might leave some confused and unsatisfied. Those who read the novel beforehand will appreciate small details incorporated, while some will be disappointed with the director’s changes.
Where the book differs from the film, however, is in the ending.
The novelty of the book itself is the way in which it manipulates the reader, slowly revealing over time that the Young Woman herself is, in fact, a figment of Jake’s imagination. Self-obsessed with his own sense of failure throughout life — including his inability to amount to anything, his inability to build relationships, his inability to be understood by his own family — the entire novel revolves around a single evening where Jake imagines how wonderful his life could have been.
So instead he invents this scenario and tucks it away in his mind. Over the course of the evening, the reader (and, in the film, the viewer) slowly comes to see the seams of Jake’s imaginary Emperor’s Clothing fray away over time, until he is left naked, vulnerable, and utterly alone.
After the girlfriend, who is unnamed in the novel, breaks into the school to look for Jake, the novel switches perspectives. Up until that point we had only heard from her, but as the language shifts we can assume the new narrator is Jake and that everything that has happened thus far was not real. He panics, running through the school. He eventually locks himself in a closet and stabs himself. His death is later revealed through the dialogue of two unnamed characters who recount the events of the night of his death.
The ending change makes the movie feel almost incomplete when compared to the novel. The title makes sense for the book; the double entendre of “I’m thinking of ending things” refers not only to the relationship between Jake and his girlfriend, but also to Jake’s life. Because the ending is so ambiguous in the film, you don’t get the same satisfaction you feel when you realize what the title actually means. It’s almost impossible to walk out of this movie understanding not only the plot but the meaning if one has not read the novel.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a complicated story that needs to have the ending that the book did in order for it all to come together. Jake not dying but instead accepting the Nobel Prize and performing a song almost feels like Kaufman did not fully commit to the source material. While the movie portrayed certain elements, like the camerawork and tone, beautifully, it felt like Kaufman and his crew gave up halfway through filming and tried to make it deeper than it is. Ultimately, it is a story about a man with mental illness and should not be romanticized as much as it was in Kaufman’s adaptation.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is rated R.
Another Kaufman story is Adaptation, a film released in 2002. This is an introspective piece that follows Charlie (Nicolas Cage) as he attempts to adapt a novel into a screenplay. Charlie’s twin brother, Donald (also Nicolas Cage), attempts to become a screenwriter like his brother, leading to family tension. After a few suspicious remarks from author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), the two brothers track her down and reveal what is truly going on behind the scenes. Adaptation and I’m Thinking of Ending Things are relatively similar, and one can clearly tell they share a director. Both films serve as unique perspectives on everyday life.
Adaptation earned a special edition digital release — including many special features and behind the scenes featurettes — from Shout Factory on October 20th.
Adaptation is rated R.
Lucy Weiher is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl