‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ is About My Relationship, & Yours

In Netflix’s ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’, Charlie Kaufman offers everyone’s landscape of modern relationships. 

5 min read
Poster of Charlie Kaufman directed ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

Does your boyfriend’s nose become grotesquely long the day you decide to end your relationship?
Do most parents-in-law, sweet and regular hitherto, turn into Gulliver’s giants the moment the idea of ‘divorce’ is seeded in your head?
And what about those unbearable long drives that become longer, almost unending, as you nurse misgivings about your partner who wishes to discuss something, anything at that very moment?
Does your partner’s dog—once your beloved, too—also turn into a whimsical monster when you are thinking of ending things?

In all likelihood, the answer to some or all of the above is YES, and Charlie Kaufman knows it. His latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is all relationships ever, all related misgivings ever. It’s now streaming on Netflix, which, some would argue, epitomises relationships in our age.

The Plot and Its Unanswered Questions

A long drive, an urban couple on their way to meet the man’s parents living on a farm, and a promise of snowstorm. What could go wrong, you ask wistfully and answer, “everything”! Except, nothing does. But nothing is right either. Something is the matter, you know it, as does the ‘Young Woman’.

Does she have a name? Lucy? Louisa? Loise? Who is she? And what does she do? Is she a waitress? A poet? A physicist—quantum physicist at that? A painter?

Jessie Buckley
Jessie Buckley
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia
Why is she going to meet Jake’s parents on a farm when she is thinking of ending things? Why are they together? Why are they breaking up? When will the penny drop for Jake? When will she tell him? How is he going to react? Does he suspect anything yet? Will the visit to the farm change her mind? Will she, won’t she?

You keep asking and answering these questions throughout the drive. And at each moment you are proved wrong, Kaufman has a little laugh at your expense.

Charlie Kaufman, Academy award winning filmmaker 
Charlie Kaufman, Academy award winning filmmaker 
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Jesse Plemons (of Breaking Bad and Fargo fame) and Jessie Buckley (who has Chernobyl as her most illustrious credit) are the Everyman and Everywoman in the Kaufman universe and they take you on a kaleidoscopic journey into relationships. The writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Beautiful Mind has left nothing to chance as a director here. No, not even casting. The characters played by Jesse and Jessie are interchangeable. It’s no coincidence that Jake’s girlfriend mistakes his childhood photo for hers once they reach his parents’ farm.

Jesse Plemons
Jesse Plemons
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Why Kaufman’s Latest Film is an Intellectual Feast

I’m Thinking of Ending Things works in two different dimensions: emotional and intellectual. The couple’s conversation in the car are about high intellectual debates surrounding popular culture, literature, and science: they know their Wordsworth and John Cassavetes. Their behaviour at the farm and later at the local high school on their way back, on the other hand, has high emotional quotient. The audience, too, can respond to the film at these two levels.

It’s a delightful exercise, on one hand, to catch and identify the eclectic intertextuality of the film, spot all the cultural references.

Oh, Kaufman is using Bergsonian durée! Henri Bergson made time personal and subjective, after all. Wow, this interior monologue of Young Woman is so similar to those of Virginia Woolf’s heroines and the tension between the couple is reminiscent of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. And what is that staircase scene if not a nod to T S Eliot’s immortal lines from The Hollow Men,

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear

The narrative and the characters of the film exist, like the shadow in Eliot’s poem,

Between the idea
And the reality

Between the motion
And the act

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is Equally About Emotions

Emotionally speaking, who will not empathise with a romantic partner trying her best to be cordial and personable despite thinking of ending things? When Young Woman indulges in a desperate soliloquy in the car—an almost unhinged Jake has gone out to throw the melting cups of “too sweet” Tulsey Town ice cream—it is every woman who has never been taught to say no.

She gave her number to Jake six weeks ago because she couldn’t say no. She started dating him because she couldn’t say no. She agreed to come on this trip to meet his parents because she couldn’t say no.

Jake’s parents—played flawlessly by Toni Collette and David Thewlis—who age on a whim, reflect Young Woman’s state of mind.

Toni Collette 
Toni Collette 
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

They become annoying, loud, crass, pathetic, charming, caring as she goes around negotiating with feelings about her selfhood, her career, her childhood and everything else.

David Thewlis
David Thewlis
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

The discussion around her art—which by the way does not impress Jake’s father—is about every woman whose work is so casually dismissed by older men. Her pleas to go back to the city, despite giving 80 reasons, can’t convince Jake to leave. That’s every woman telling her partner “It’s late, let’s go home” while the latter wants that one last (insert indulgence).

The narrative of the couple’s visit is intercut by scenes from an old janitor’s life. We can only speculate about his identity. Is he an older Jake? The real one? As opposed to the one that loves musicals and wins a Nobel Prize in a conspicuously thespian setting? Does our present Jake exist between these two alternate images of himself? We do not know.

Or, is he an anthropomorphic maggot-infested pig in his parents’ farm that he tells his girlfriend about? But he’s “not a monster”. “He doesn’t beat” Young Woman. Then why does she keep repeating, “I’m thinking of ending things”.

Kaufman, the “genius”, dissects the “interiority” of modern day men and women—just like Haruki Murakami—with equal “diligence” that he reserves for creating “landscapes” with a sense of foreboding. His Young Woman is Eliot’s Sweeney Among the Nightingales, with added dangers of rape and violence against women around her.

A barren landscape with sinister ice cream shops. A parable for modern relationships where all ‘Meet the Parents’ cliches act like Jake’s odd dog, Jimmy: appear on command in their most disturbing form.

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