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04 September 2020 20:40

Jerry Falwell Jr. Liberty University Jonathan Falwell

Charlie Kaufman’s Confounding ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things,’ Explained

Nevertheless, nothing in Kaufman's head-spinning repertoire has begged for answers more than "I'm Thinking of Ending Things." His scripts for "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" took bizarre labyrinthine paths into the troubled male psyche, a journey he continued with directing efforts "Synecdoche, New York" and "Anomalisa." In his new Netflix-produced feature, however, Kaufman has built a story steeped in the details of a single troubled mind, and littered it with so many reference points it practically demands a masterclass in semiotics to parse them all. "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" pulls from Canadian writer Iain Reid's 2016 novel, but Kaufman has taken many liberties with the text, even as the basics of the story remain unchanged: Jake (Jesse Plemons) takes new girlfriend Lucy (Jesse Buckley) on a snowy drive to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). While "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" may baffle or frustrate viewers trying to parse it from moment to moment, it also has a clear-cut sense of purpose: Jake, whose childhood room is loaded with books, DVDs, and other detritus from his youth, has so absorbed the media surrounding him that it seems to govern every aspect of his reality. Fair warning, if that spoiler alert up top hasn't scared you off yet: "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" benefits from the eerie puzzle-like nature of its design. In the opening sequence of the movie, Jake and Lucy endure an interminable drive up to his parents' house, while Lucy continues to contemplate leaving him.

At the end of Reid's novel, it's revealed that Jake and his unnamed girlfriend are the same person — the lonely high school janitor, who invented her as his fantasy. It doesn't take long for "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" to imply as much. The most sophisticated gamble of the movie is that Kaufman has taken this device and turned it into an open question: Can a fantasy exist on its own terms? In "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," the character endures that same struggle when the fantasy fights back. It's a storytelling gamble unique to the art of cinema: Within the "world" of "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" — one controlled by Kaufman as well as his protagonist — Lucy exists.

"In keeping with the idea of giving her some agency, I didn't want her to be responsible for his ending," Kaufman said. At one point, the janitor watches the ending of a cheesy romance that's directed by Robert Zemeckis. "Sometimes things are funny because they're funny, and I feel like it's possible that Zemeckis could have made this movie, even if it's unlikely," Kaufman said. "I don't think Zemeckis ever has or ever would make a movie like this," Kaufman said. His stuff is generally more high-concept, but it's possible, so the joke resonates somehow." He asked the director for permission to include the reference, and Zemeckis is thanked in the credits.

On top of that, Kaufman did at one point almost work with the director when he adapted the young adult novel "Chaos Walking" way back in 2012. "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. "That goes toward the idea of Jake not being able to have anything that he wants," Kaufman said. 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." (Also notable: Kaufman's recent novel, "Antkind," is about the plight of a film critic.) "Then there was this idea that there were many generations of high-school kids who worked there that he had interacted with over the years and had his problems with," Kaufman said.

Earlier in the movie, the janitor passes a school recital of the play, which includes an extensive "dream ballet" sequence that finds the farm girl Laurey at the center of a brawl between two suitors, Curly McLain and Jud Fry. That sequence ends with Curly's death; here, it's the Jake stand-in who goes down, suggesting that Jake has accepted the impossibility of his love. "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." In other words, Jake has been pretending he's someone else, and uses the narrative framework of "Oklahoma!" to eliminate that delusion. These give way to an animated pig with maggots on its stomach — a grim encounter that Jake recounts to Lucy earlier in the movie, while giving her a tour of the farm. Onstage to accept an award in the movie's final scene, Jake stands against a backdrop of the "Oklahoma!" set, wearing obvious stage makeup to look like an old man.

"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," Kaufman said. Earlier in "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," a DVD of "A Beautiful Mind" is glimpsed in Jake's room, so it stands to reason that Jake found much relatable about the story of a brilliant man who struggles with paranoid schizophrenia and has trouble sorting out the reality surrounding him. "The character of Jud seemed to be comparable in some ways to Jake," Kaufman said. Kaufman hopes that people keep watching through the credits, which list many of the references throughout the movie. "There's actually a lot of stuff in the end credits that's important to me," Kaufman said. Ultimately, Kaufman doesn't think that "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" hides much from its audience. Road trips "remind you that the world is bigger than the inside of your own head," observes a young woman played by Jessie Buckley in Charlie Kaufman's elegiac thriller "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" on Netflix. This untrustworthy quality is worsened by her character's boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), who seems to know what she's thinking from moment to moment on their drive to meet his parents for dinner — a first for her. Kaufman tricks us into thinking we're watching a horror movie for the first two-thirds of his film — which is also how "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is marketed, how it's shot in its first half and how its surreal elements play on our sense of dramatic tension on a first viewing. "Anything an environment makes you feel is about you, not the environment, right?" Buckley's character, a painter (and then apparently a physicist or a poet or a gerontologist) explains to Jake's uncultured parents in an exchange invented for the film. The insides of things are Kaufman's home turf, and though nobody could call "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" upbeat, it's oddly comforting when the movie finally reveals itself. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is acclaimed writer-director Charlie Kaufman's first film since 2015's Oscar-nominated stop-motion romance Anomalisa. I'm Thinking of Ending Things, which landed on Netflix on Friday, plays around with many familiar Kaufman concepts like dual identities, dream-like realities, and frustrated, lonely men and the women they hope will save them. But even though one would never call any one of Kaufman's films simple or direct, I'm Thinking of Ending Things might be his most purposefully inscrutable work. "I'm thinking of ending things" is a phrase repeated both by the female narrator of the book and the film's central character, played by Jessie Buckley. We take it to mean that she's thinking of breaking up with her newish boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), while they're on their way to meet his parents. Everything we see with Jake, his parents, and this unnamed woman is taking place inside the head of an older man, a high school janitor (Guy Boyd), who is contemplating taking his own life. We. Me." There are clues that this was coming throughout both the book and the film, if you know what to look for, including the moment when the woman sees a photo of Jake as a kid and it looks just like her. Based on brilliant but deliberately mysterious novel by Iain Reid, adapted and directed by Charlie Kaufman who is known for his complex meta-textual scripts including Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind and Adaptation, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a perfect storm of philosophy, ambiguity and wankery. A thriller, or perhaps a horror of sorts, I'm Thinking Of Ending Things stars Jessie Buckley as a young woman travelling to a farm house to meet her boyfriend's parents for the first time. In her opening narration she says she is thinking of ending things with her partner, Jake (Jesse Plemons), a slightly awkward intellectual and outsider who she's been with for just six or seven weeks.