I’ve decided to start watching more movies. I have a short attention span, so I usually hate the things – it gives me anxiety just thinking about starting one. Unless I’ve read reviews, synopses, and double-checked the Rotten Tomatoes score to make sure it’s worthy of my time, I’m never quite sure I’m willing to commit 2+ hours of my life to something that might be utterly horrible.
But alas, I must be honest with myself. I have never actually finished a movie and thought, “Wow, I wish I didn’t just waste my time with that horrific nonsense.” In fact, I’m almost always pleasantly surprised by how much I like a film whenever someone does convince me to watch one.
For this reason, I’ve decided my aversion to films is a personal problem that I want to shake.
So, whether you’re a cinephile or you’re in cine-denial (like me), get ready for Watch This, in which I, a self-proclaimed film dummy, talk about cool movies as best I can.
The first film up for discussion is Netflix’s recent production:
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
Original release: 2020
Run time: 134 minutes
Spoiler alerts ahead! And if you’d like to see the trailer, I’ve added it below.
‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ – A surreal journey into psychological horror
This film is based on the debut novel of the same name by Canadian writer Iain Reid, which was published in 2016. Director Charlie Kaufman, who has directed such surreal films as 1999’s “Being John Malkovich,” 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and 2015’s “Anomalisa,” turned the novel into a screenplay.
Now, I didn’t read the novel, so my understanding of the storyline only comes from the film’s deep dive into a strange, strange world.
Lucy (Jessie Buckley) narrates the story. At the start she is waiting for her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to pick her up for a snowy road trip to meet his parents for the first time.
But we’re in her head (or so we think), and she can’t stop repeating to herself over and over, “I’m thinking of ending things.”
A very foggy film
Jake is Lucy’s boyfriend of four weeks – or is it seven? Everything’s felt so “foggy” lately, she says. And that fogginess transfers to the audience straight away – continuity changes and oddities start with missing hats, beards that turn to mustaches, and voices that seem to change. But soon the pace picks up, making it obvious that we’re not in a normal world.
As the changes between scenes became more glaring and the focus darts between the main characters, Jake and Lucy, things get really weird. You think you’re sitting comfortably in the mind of the narrator, but the story and the characters become increasingly chaotic and disconnected until you’re not quite sure what’s happening anymore.
Interspersed with this are scenes of a quiet, extremely elderly and slow-moving high school janitor working the night shift all alone on the same snowy night. It makes you wonder, what’s he got to do with all of this? Is he going to kill someone later on? How will he play a part in Lucy and Jake’s story from across town? Why is the dialogue between everyone so weird? Is it just me, or does everyone (including Jake’s very strange and – somewhat time-traveling? – parents) seem like they can all somehow read each other’s minds, but at other times they cannot?
Why does Lucy keep saying that she and Jake need to leave, but Jake refuses to go until he’s ready? Why does no one seem to acknowledge all the sudden changes and dream-like environment?
Does the constant dialogue and narration of swirling, self-doubting thoughts and meandering digressions about poetry and physics remind you of an anxious mind, or a one with dementia?
Director Charlie Kaufman explains
Look, I’m in cine-denial over here (yes, I used that twice) and I’m new to film critique. I’m going to need a little help explaining one of the most delightfully confusing films I’ve ever seen – so I turned to IndieWire, where Eric Kohn interviewed director Charlie Kaufman about the film’s sometimes terrifying, sometimes humorous moments.
Now, if you haven’t watched the movie yet, I recommend you do before learning its secrets. You’ll likely even figure a few out on your own, and it’s fun to try. The effort is worth it, I promise.
For those of you ready to discover what was really going on in this film, read on to discover the answers to some of the biggest questions that I had throughout.
Are Jake and Lucy the same person?
Yes, they are. Lucy is an ever-changing amalgam of different female characters that Jake has read about, heard about, listened to, and watched from afar. The two of them are part of one psyche – that of the janitor, whose scenes cleaning the hallways, observing the ins and outs of afterschool adventures and watching cheesy romance movies made me feel so sad and lonely.
The more we learn about Jake through Lucy and their odd, creepy and time-warping visit to his parents’ home, the more we learn about him: He is something of a genius; his mother was cruel to him until she succumbed to dementia; he always felt he was not good enough; he thinks about being old.
What we learn bouncing around in Lucy/Jake’s thoughts is that the elderly man we see feels “invisible” to everyone; or maybe he’s just always felt that way. He also believes not many people like the elderly, no matter how much knowledge and heart they may have to offer. Same with ugly people, for that matter.
But maybe he’s just always felt that way.
Is Lucy real, though? Is she just a fantasy?
Kaufman confirms that even as a figment of the janitor’s imagination, Lucy as a character needed to have agency. In my opinion, this choice made the push-and-pull in Jake’s head even more intense. As a viewer, you might feel slowly crushed as you realize he’s always talking to himself, judging himself and hating himself whether it’s from Lucy’s point-of-view, his abusive mother’s, or his own.
Because Lucy can’t be controlled, Jake can’t control his mind or his own thoughts. The way he seems to flow in and out of identifying as Lucy and identifying as Jake implies that the janitor’s fantasy (or overall brain) is deteriorating exponentially.
In the same vein, things feel tense, angry, and confusing in the fantasy before the janitor is able to sit down and eat his lunch of a simple sandwich, all alone in a classroom. The janitor’s real-time psyche is intrinsically linked to these characters’ very existence, whether they’re “real” or not.
“I needed her to have agency for it to work as a dramatic piece,” Kaufman told Kohn. “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 be bored with him, how she’s going to not think he’s smart enough or interesting enough.”
What is up with that uncanny valley-esque ending scene?
That odd culmination scene in which Jake accepts a prize (as part of a stage play, fittingly) was intentionally strange and disconnected. The reason everyone in the audience is familiar is because they’re the only characters Jake holds in his mind – Lucy, his parents, and the high school students he sees throughout the day as a janitor.
“There was a scene where the janitor found a makeup book in the bathroom as he was cleaning up, because somebody had clearly been putting their makeup on in this boys or girls room,” Kaufman told Kohn. “All of the people who were in the audience, with the exception of the characters from the movie, are the extras who played high school kids in the rest of the movie…So they’re all young people wearing old-age makeup.”
Jake and Lucy’s “old-age” makeup is also intentionally overdone, pointing to the rapidly fracturing nature of this fantasy-dream that will soon end.
Why you should watch this
I’ll be 100% honest – I paused ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ two minutes in and sought out something different because I thought I’d hate it. The poetic language in the voiceover narration that kicks off the film felt so pretentious that I was about to “nope” right out of there – until I realized it was a major part of the plot.
But what kind of viewer would I be if I judged a movie based on its first two minutes? I decided to go back. And wow, am I glad I did. Fans of psychological thrillers and plot twists will love the journey this film takes you on.
It is a trippy and at times relatable immersion into the mind of a lonely person who knows it’s too late to live the life they always wanted, but never felt strong enough to reach out and grab.
Don’t end this one before it’s over!