I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Netflix's haunting and unclassifiable art film from writer-director Charlie Kaufman, is not a movie that tells you exactly what it's about. It doesn't have a cause-and-effect plot, and the story moves according to dream logic. Strange things happen that go unremarked upon. There are inconsistencies, like how the main character's (Jessie Buckley) name keeps changing (she's identified in the credits as "Young Woman"). And the 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque ending doesn't explain all the mysterious occurrences, but rather doubles down and wraps things up in even more abstract fashion than the rest of the movie. It's disorienting and dazzling, and sure to inspire many conversations about what it all means. But before we get into what happened and what it means, we need to contextualize the movie in Kaufman's body of work.
The film is an adaptation of a 2016 psychological thriller novel by author Iain Reid that's faithful, in its way, to the source material. Kaufman does not do straight adaptations; when he does them, he makes them his own, inserting his own thematic ideas and meta-commentary on the story and plot events. All of his films, from his debut Being John Malkovich to I'm Thinking of Ending Things, are about the impossibility of a self-absorbed person to understand anyone else, which often manifests as a writer or other creative person struggling to understand his characters, which makes him doubt and loathe himself. His most famous and acclaimed adaptation is, of course, Adaptation., his Academy Award-winning screenplay made into a film by Spike Jonze, which is about his own struggle to adapt the nonfiction book The Orchid Thief into a movie in which he is a character. The failure-to-understand concept also manifests as a man too self-absorbed to really grasp that the woman in a relationship with him is a real person and not his own idealized fantasy, most prominently typified by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind's Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey). In I'm Thinking of Ending Things, it seems to be both types of manifestation. The end of the book is psychological. The end of the movie is psychedelic.
The novel has a twist ending. The girlfriend, who has been narrating the story, is revealed to be a figment of a lonely man's imagination, one that he had written about in his notebooks, a fantasy based on a woman he wished he had talked to in a pub many years earlier. She realizes that she and the man, Jake, are the same person, and they merge into one. Then the janitor, who is the real Jake, appears and gives them a straightened-out clothes hanger, which they use to stab themselves in the neck, leaving Jake as "a single unit, back to one. Me. Only me. Jake. Alone again." Later, Jake's body is found in the school.
All of that happens in the movie, but in a different way. It's not really a twist that Jake (Jessie Plemons) and Lucy (we'll call her Lucy for convenience, because that's her most commonly used name) and the janitor (Guy Boyd) are all the same person, because it's not structured as a reveal. It's not really concealed throughout the movie (how else would Jake know exactly how many classrooms there are in the school?), and then it's not made explicit when she realizes, which is when the ballet begins.
The ballet ends when the janitor-dancer kills the Jake-dancer and Jake and Lucy part forever. Then the janitor sweeps up, which is him ending the story. Then he goes out to his parked pick-up truck, takes all his clothes off in the middle of a blizzard, and is led into death by a cartoon pig, whose gruesome death he described earlier in the movie. The pig (voiced by Oliver Platt) takes Jake to the auditorium, where he gives an acceptance speech to Lucy and his parents and everyone else he has ever known, who are all wearing high school stage makeup, thanking them for the award, and saying he couldn't have done it without them. Then Jake sings the song "Lonely Room" from Oklahoma!, which contains the lyrics "a dream starts a-dancin' in my head/ And all the things that I wish fer/ Turn out like I want them to be." As he finishes and the crowd applauds, the screen goes blue, and the movie ends on a static image of his truck buried in snow in the school's parking lot.
Lucy doesn't really exist, and yet the story is told from her perspective. Jake, her creator, can't control her. When he praises the John Cassavetes movie A Woman Under the Influence, a movie about a woman made from a man's perspective, she disagrees with him, launching into a recitation of film critic Pauline Kael's pan of the movie. I'm Thinking of Ending Things is Kaufman's first movie told from a female character's perspective, and his most lacerating study of a sad man using an idealized fantasy of a real woman to make himself feel better. It's a pernicious cultural idea he also examined in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Kate Winslet's Clementine told Joel, "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a f---ed-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours."
I'm Thinking of Ending Things takes it even further, as it takes place entirely in a male character's head as he tries and fails to create a woman from scratch rather than engage with the world. He can't keep her story straight, he keeps making it about himself. And since Kaufman's writing is always about writing itself, I'm Thinking of Ending Things is also about a male writer's frustration with the limits of his own empathy and imagination. He's too in his own head to understand anyone else, especially not a woman in a romantic relationship with him. It's a bleak ending, because Jake is aware of his own shortcomings, but he's powerless to do anything about them. And you feel bad for him, because his life is very depressing, but he did it to himself. You can't help but wonder if Kaufman sees himself this way.
Or something like that. The movie is more of an experience than a puzzle to be solved. And ultimately, it's really about how Jessie Buckley is rapidly becoming one of the greatest actresses of her generation.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix.