I’m Thinking of Ending Things: making sense of the nightmare

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By Ollie Bradfield |

This review contains spoilers.

Netflix Logo / Wikimedia Commons

“Directed by Charlie Kaufman” was all I needed to see in the trailer to get excited about Netflix’s new original, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, based on the book of the same name. That slightly nauseating feeling of things not being quite right suddenly lurching into surrealism is Kaufman’s signature style, and he delivers that yet again. People’s exasperation at its incomprehensibility is understandable, but I think misses the point: his films are more of… a vibe. Their very impenetrability is what makes them so bafflingly enjoyable.

Frankly, the film is indecipherable if you haven’t read the book. Adapting books to film is always difficult, and usually a matter of what to abridge and how. But far from abridging for sake of brevity and narrative simplicity, this adaptation does the inverse. It replaces entire plot points and the ending, rendering it barely legible even for readers of the novel.

The book is a psychological horror that descends further into nightmare. We begin the story from an unnamed female character’s perspective, who is considering ending a relationship en route to meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. We spend most of the time in the car with the couple, as she tells us about their relationship, and is intercut with interludes of a third-person narrative describing the death of a mysterious loner.

“It does feel like a bit of a cop out…”

Over the course of the novel we slowly start to piece things together: the dead person being described is Jake (the boyfriend), the female character is simply a projection of Jake’s fantasies, and the “thing” that they were thinking of ending was his life, not the relationship. This is something you could probably work out in the first two-thirds, but is made pretty explicit in the final sequence. The film and book’s plot track pretty closely to each other until this point, when they enter the school.

In the book, the female character runs around the school looking for Jake, attempting to elude a terrifying janitor who is chasing her. We see glimpses of him in a mask, crawling along the floor towards her. It’s genuinely scary, and the only book I’ve ever read where I turned a page (or five) and literally recoiled. Finally, they face each other, and she kills him with a clothes hanger. Or rather, Jake, who is the janitor, kills himself, and is found by the people we hear from in the interludes.

It does feel like a bit of a cop out: “it was all in his imagination.” Sometimes the page-turning pace also comes at the expense of feeling a little rushed. But it is otherwise well executed and an enjoyable read. There are passages that are occasionally quite profound, others that come across as pretentious. The way she fawns over Jake’s intellect is also a little grating. It’s a relief when we find out that her description of him is no more than his own projection of his ego.

The film preserves this. Kind of. The reveal that Jake is the janitor isn’t really a twist, and fairly obvious from the start. That Lucy (she has a name in the film) isn’t real is less obvious: she describes an encounter similar to what we’re told is the story of how they met, except in this version, she writes him off as a creep, and the rest is implied to all be Jake’s fantasy. We’re also not told what job Jake does, whereas it’s Lucy who’s the quantum physicist, or painter, or studying senescence (again, the inconsistency is the point). It’s implied here that this is a regular fantasy Jake indulges in: the dumpster full of empty cups; the various names Lucy is called; her various styles of dress, coat, and glasses that inexplicably change.

“the shift in genre from horror to surreal drama gives the film much more room for pathos”

He still dies at the end – but not by suicide. The double entendre of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” then loses its meaning, unless his death from hypothermia was intentional. The ending that replaces the terrifying chase – the abstract dance sequence that gives way to a pastiche of A Beautiful Mind and Oklahoma – is classic Kaufman dream sequence. The whole thing is kind of sad – one interpretation is that the dance is a conflict between the fantasy of his life, and the actuality of his life. The constant references to works of fiction belies the fact that he lives his whole life vicariously through fantasy – so that he might live the life of a troubled genius, a pathos-filled poet, or whatever Oklahoma is about (I haven’t seen it).

This sadness was also present in the book – but the shift in genre from horror to surreal drama gives the film much more room for pathos. I like stories that can breathe, that you can immerse yourself in. That’s what this film does. Dreams are about feelings and themes more than coherent plot, and that’s Kaufman’s approach to filmmaking. Loneliness, insecurity, and mourning for a life you never had – that’s what this film’s about.

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