Everything about Charlie Kaufman’s movie, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, indicates that we’ve entered a crisis. The characters are in crisis. The couple’s relationship is in crisis. And, a storm is approaching.
But, what kind of storm?
As the film opens, we see a spot of color in an otherwise bleak winter day. A young woman with vibrant red curls, also dressed in bright red and yellow, stands on the sidewalk waiting for Jake, her boyfriend, to pick her up.
She is warm and vibrant, a highlight in the otherwise cold, snow covered street. He is in black, his skin so pale and lifeless that he almost blends into the snow outside his car window.
Almost immediately, the audience senses trouble. This relationship is doomed. The young woman has told us as much, as we hear her think, “I’m thinking of ending things.”
What follows is a dark, complex, winding story. An old farmhouse, in the middle of nowhere, complete with a scary basement. Death and decay is everywhere: dead sheep, the dead of winter, the frequent mention of hell. We know something is coming, we expect a ghost or a killer or the evil to emerge. But, it doesn’t.
Warning, spoilers ahead
It turns out that we are all watching a fantasy: the projection of a lonely janitor who doesn’t seem to matter to anyone. He roams the high school, tidying up, watching teenagers sing, and dance, and live.
Jake is that janitor. Cleaning the high school he attended, and living out a dream sequence.
But this dream provides little relief. In fact, even in this fantasy that he has created, even his imaginary girlfriend, he is inadequate and unwanted.
That is the tragedy at the heart of this story.
Jake is alone. He never had the courage, the confidence, or the opportunity to live the life he wanted to. And here he is, grasping to understand where it all went wrong. Maybe it was the night that he wasn’t brave enough to ask a girl he saw at a bar for her phone number.
Maybe she was the one that got away.
But how can anyone know that? He can’t. He doesn’t even know her name, which is why her name, her clothes, her job, keeps changing throughout the film. If he could only bring her home at the right time – when his parents were young, or maybe when they were old, maybe some time in between? Maybe then, it could have worked. Maybe then he could have had it all.
But Jake doesn’t believe that. Whether her name is Lucy or Louise, whether she is a physicist or a poet, she would never love him. At least, he doesn’t believe she would.
Even in Jake’s imagination, he is never good enough. Like his mother said, he is – at best – diligent,” but not special, not talented, possesses no special abilities.
He can’t go back and change the choices that he made. Worse, he doesn’t really believe he could ever have the life and love he craves.
There is a lot to analyze and unpack in this film. The lighting, the scenery, the flowers that always surround and adorn Jakes girlfriend. But, at the heart of it all is a man’s aching lonelines and despair. The audience is a voyeur, deep inside his psyche, watching him try to work it all out, watching as he tries to find where he went wrong, trying to decide who he could have been.
Ultimately, he gives in to his despair.