Where Reid spends pages and pages absentmindedly ruminating on the many very painful, and very human, distinctions between Self and Other before losing himself in a tonal mess of relationship drama, existentialism, I/you/we fuckery, suicidal ideation, childhood pain, identity loss, and so on (this being a condensed report of the essential “thesis” of his novel, so to speak, though it’s not much of a thesis), Kaufman masterfully, constantly directs his creativity toward the same conclusion, with startling, obnoxious, wearying repetition; in this way, he aims for the very “ending things” that the lengthy runtime wants the audience to be thinking about, over and over again.
* * *
1. Introduction, or Roughly What I’m Going for Here
I suppose that, at the end of the day, I really can’t blame Charlie Kaufman for wishing to rewrite Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It’s an astoundingly rewriteable novel. Minutes into the first chapter I began experiencing the barely containable urge to start scribbling corrections in the margins.
Somewhat similarly, there is much in the film version of I’m Thinking of Ending Things that simply begs for you to stoop to its own level and start arguing with it. I further suppose that that, in a way, is the spirit of true adaptation. It’s certainly in my spirit that I can’t help but take the bait that Kaufman has so willingly offered.
Say what you will about I’m Thinking of Ending Things, after all, but it certainly made an impact. With a release so eerily, perfectly timed to the height of the pandemic (released Sept. 4, 2020), the film hit streaming just when Netflix’s subscription numbers were swelling due to the world’s collective cabin fever. The ripples it made resounded not just through the community of established movie-watchers – as in, those who would have already been anticipating a new Kaufman picture, no matter where or when it was released – but also through an unprecedented number of unsuspecting Netflix civilians who simply stumbled across it, displayed front-and-center on their home pages under Netflix’s highly advertised “Originals” category.
The exposure of these uninitiated folks to I’m Thinking is perhaps one of the cruelest things about the movie (though there are certainly many more things to complain about, as this essay’s word count proves). Draping its convoluted storyline – a complicated affair in which a couple, on their way to visit the boyfriend’s parents, are ultimately revealed to be figments in the imagination of an aging, lonely janitor imagining a better youth for himself – in jargonistic dialogue and a stilted, auteurist style, the film is equal parts confusing, inflammatory, and exhausting to both “film people” and civilians alike. It is the kind of show-off piece so overburdened with coy grandeur that it is clearly trying to make some sort of statement, but finds itself unbelievably lost within its own fancies. In other words, it is exactly the kind of film that certainly seems quite important and technically awesome, but is actually, when you get down to it, really little more than a colossal headache.
For as much as Kaufman lifts directly from the novel (quoting entire passages at such length that it becomes, in quintessentially ambiguous, postmodern fashion, impossible to tell whether these obtuse chunks of text are being recited with farcical mock-seriousness or genuine admiration), his end product is of a radically different aim, heft, and power than Reid’s. Though Reid may have liked to have been the center of such rapturous scrutiny, only Kaufman was capable of sharpening the original premise of I’m Thinking into the attention-demanding doomsaying that it now is. Both share the same central premise, but only Kaufman, in punching up the intellectualism, destabilizing the main character, and stylizing the central climax, could make it as unlikable and sharp an experience as it is.
Where Reid spends pages and pages absentmindedly ruminating on the many very painful, and very human, distinctions between Self and Other before losing himself in a tonal mess of relationship drama, existentialism, I/you/we fuckery, suicidal ideation, childhood pain, identity loss, and so on (this being a condensed report of the essential “thesis” of his novel, so to speak, though it’s not much of a thesis), Kaufman masterfully, constantly directs his creativity toward the same conclusion, with startling, obnoxious, wearying repetition; in this way, he aims for the very “ending things” that the lengthy runtime wants the audience to be thinking about, over and over again. (This is, essentially, Kaufman’s thesis, arguably better only in that it actually exists.)
The entirety of the novel is geared toward its climactic, suicidal dissolution wherein things truly do end, with “things” including Jake (Jesse Plemons) and Lucy’s (Jessie Buckley) relationship as well as her life (and also, I suppose, the novel itself). As alluded to above, the whole thing functions as an obvious, and therefore poor, Pynchon/DeLillo/Acker/Pick your Favorite Postmodernist Here-imitation, with its overzealous ambiguity sending less attentive clientele into throes of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things ending explained” searches on Google. This, at least, is somewhat preserved in the film adaptation, though both of these elements – the dissolution and the throes of “ending explained” searches – are thoroughly weaponized by Kaufman’s style in a way that makes one wonder what good could come from this whole project, anyway. The central climax becomes a showdown of miserabilist philosophizing and cinematic overemphasis, giving the already bitter conclusion of the novel an even more bitter edge. All of these choices will be revisited later.
So allow me to try and finally explain, because Kaufman never does. Every single facet of his version of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, from each individual minute to the experience of sitting through the entire two-hour runtime, is painfully engineered to be as grueling as possible for both viewer and creator alike and to conclude, ultimately, on virulent self-defeat. No wonder those “ending explained” videos are in such hot demand, and so many positive reviews are still bookended with admissions that the reviewer didn’t really know what was going on anyway, but it sure seemed like something great was being said. Behind these illusions of greatness, the film does nothing but tear everything down without ever building anything up. In the wake of this rampage, it doesn’t even spare itself: there is no possible culmination of it that isn’t self-destruction.
My ever-so-bold argument here is that, even if the film does all of this with astounding technical precision, glossy digital cinematography and all, this is ultimately not a movie worth paying attention to (at least, not in the way that we have been paying attention to it thus far). I’m not a huge fan of movies that tear everything down around them without leaving anything in their wake, and especially not of movies that do so while kicking up such a colossal fuss about it. So sue me. I like cinema that actually says something.
In many ways, I’ll concede, Kaufman was successful: the film has drawn hordes of viewers and more praise than derision, though those who oppose it tend to oppose it more vehemently than usual (as I am currently proving). Whether any of that attention is truly deserved, or even simply just healthy or conducive to anyone involved, is another argument entirely.
2. If There’s Any Question as to Whether the Movie Is Actually as Brutal and Self-Flagellatory As I Claim It to Be
Let it be resolved by the fact that almost an entire 40 minutes are devoted to the interior of a car, split into two 20-minute scenes, where the only respite from their agonizing runtime is the surrounding snowy, rural landscape of the highway and the miserabilist content of the protagonists’ conversation. It is only the landscape that is described as “beautiful in a bleak, heartbroken kind of way,” yet the dialogue is hotly competing for the title as well: the blank, wintry abyss surrounding the car is almost somehow preferable to the mind-numbing barrage of clarifications and counterpoints that Jake and Lucy endlessly hurl at each other. Their conversation is seamlessly engineered to never go anywhere, caught in a nightmarish web of relativity, irony, cynicism, and other such postmodern headaches. Take this excerpt, whose asinine length hopefully mimics the profound exhaustion one gets from sitting through the entire thing:
“Like we’re on a train, and it takes us where it takes us. There’s no veering off, there’s no side trips, and like Mussolini’s train, it runs on time.” [This is Lucy, speaking on the nature of time. The forced reference to fascism, à la popularized buzzword, is duly noted.]
“But that’s not really true about Mussolini and trains. The improvements in the railway system preceded him. He just took the credit. And even still, they didn’t always run on time.” [This is Jake.]
“I wasn’t really talking about Mussolini’s train –”
“And anyway, you – you can always jump off a train.”
“In movies. In real life, you’ll probably die jumping from a moving train.” [How pointed. Either way, notice what a string of obtuse clarifications we just had to go through, and how the only logical conclusion to any of this reeks of suicide?]
“That’s … that’s very true. I suppose I watch too many movies.” [How even more pointed.]
“Hmm. Everybody does. Societal malady.” [Do I even need to narrate here?]
“Fill my brain with lies to pass the time, in the blink of an eye and an eye blink in excruciatingly slow motion.” [Strangely ironic, strangely not. It is impossible to tell if Jake is being genuine here, and that ambiguity only further serves the destructive nature of this conversation.]
“It’s like the rabies virus, attaching itself to our ganglia, changing us into itself.”
“Viruses are monstrous.”
“Everything wants to live, Jake. Viruses are just one more example of everything.” [Even more obtuse clarification.]
“Even fake, crappy movie ideas want to live. Like, they grow in your brain, replacing real ideas. That’s what makes them dangerous.” [More cinema talk.]
“But did you know there are insects that blow themselves up?” [Sidelining clarification, again. And still, how much of this is genuine? Ironic? Genuinely ironic?]
“Not everything wants to live …”
“There are certain ants, certain aphids …”
“For the good of their community.”
“There are suicide bombers.”
“So not everything wants to live. Right?”
“True. Well, they … they want their communities to live. Which is sort of like themselves, writ large. Anyways, we don’t really know if they want anything. It’s just most likely how they’re programmed.”
“Maybe we’re all programmed, right?”
[At this, Lucy mimics the sound of an explosion.] “And now we’re both dead.” [And yet no real conclusion is reached. Only mutually assured destruction. Boom.]
This type of rabid intellectualism, it should be noted, does not really occur in the novel. This is not to say that it is not plagued with intellectualism, but that in the novel, at least, there is not this much painfully circular arguing. Reid’s characters raise intellectual points as expression and metaphor, and Lucy’s role especially is mainly one of thoughtful, admiring inquirer, not obstinate counter-arguer; meanwhile, all Kaufman’s characters ever do, it seems, is draw logical circles around each other in the hope that the other will grow tired of proving just how well-maintained their ego is. It’s stuff like this that leads to their bickering over only vaguely relevant details, such as Lucy’s use of the word “sissy” while quoting Bette Davis or, similarly, the word “assertions” while speaking about A Woman under the Influence. The two don’t even have any actual points, positions, or arguments; the only conclusion to the conversation quoted above is total nullification. Their only stance, it seems, is to sideline each other, sans any actual, culminating, positive statements of truth or belief.
If anything, the only argument present here is Kaufman’s implicit thesis – that the cultural tendencies exemplified by their dialogue, specifically those of relativity, irony, ambiguity, cynicism, and reference, if drawn to their maximum potential, will eventually consume everything around them and prevent any real meaning from escaping. Each phrase is shrouded by the potential of multiple, contradictory interpretations, all of which capitalize on a winking, self-referential irony that underpins either the dialogue’s own futility or its falsity; either way, the conversation undermines itself before it even has a chance to reach its conclusion. The entire thing drips with muddled relativism. Where are these “real ideas” that Lucy mentions, that she seems to value so highly? How genuine is Jake’s claim that he watches “too many movies”? Do we even care that they both end up “dead”?
Knowing the long-anticipated ending that the film keeps warning us about, the better question is, perhaps, “Will we be?”
These are all rhetorical questions. They are not worth answering; the film’s convolution makes it clear enough that this is so.
In particular, it is I’m Thinking’s obsession with reference and allusion, from its incessant name-dropping to the flashy, five-minute quotations of other artistic works, that the average viewer notices. These allusions are flat at best and alienating at worst, further clouding the dialogue’s defeatist intellectualism and obtuse imitations of actual, positive meaning. Consider the moment after Jake and Lucy stop at a “Tulsey Town” for ice cream (originally Dairy Queen in the novel, but copyright law is copyright law) and Jake, practically unprompted, bursts into an awkward, frail-voiced rendition of the full Tulsey Town jingle as they are driving. Entirely off-putting and bizarre, his direct gaze into the camera only reinforces the lack of connection or meaning that this moment holds. What value does any of the cultural discourse he and his girlfriend participate in have, really? Just like his empty stare, it – and the film surrounding it – is rendered totally void. And yet the moment still begs for attention, (literally) holding the viewer’s gaze with Plemons’s direct, piercing quality.
In another moment, in which Lucy comes face-to-face with her own splintered identity, she laments that “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions. Their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation …” and then quickly reveals that that, too, was just an Oscar Wilde quotation, word for word. The irony and futility here are immediate. They shoot down her sentiment before she can even finish the quote (in fact, she never does). As attention-grabbing as such name-dropping may be, it only reveals the null void of the central narrative further, strung desperately as it is between these empty references.
Lucy’s identity crisis is of particular interest as well: a narrator so unreliable that she can’t even decide on a singular name for herself, she is transformed by the enigmatic Buckley into the film’s most charismatic mystery, prompting the audience to pay attention, above all else, to her subtly inconsistent nature – her contradictory outfits, names, and professions. Drawing the audience in this way, she is ultimately revealed by Kaufman to be just another facet of the work’s existential anxiety. Though the first paragraphs of her voice-over, which open the film, may lead the audience to believe that she has a sane grip on sense of self, one can’t be fooled. When Kaufman finally pulls the rabbit out of the hat to reveal the Janitor in his entirety, it becomes clear that there is no real “self” to speak of, and even if there was, she wouldn’t be able to grasp it for a single second. Indeed, her narration is quickly and viciously collapsed on itself, revealed to be contained only within the mind of one aging, rambling Janitor and, as such, transformed simply into a symptom of some greater, more broadly destructive decline.
This, by the way, is largely yet another Kaufman invention not present in the novel’s Lucy, who very comfortably has a single name and no character inconsistencies and whose only mysterious quality is her forced passivity, combined with the sparse details provided about her personal life: she is still a figment of an aging janitor’s imagination, but at least she’s quiet and dignified about it. The point of all these “Reid vs. Kaufman” asides is to point out that all of these were choices that Kaufman not only consciously made, but poured considerable effort into executing.
If this weren’t enough of a pain already, Lucy’s identity crisis runs even deeper; in fact, it infects the film’s existence as a whole, throwing into question the nature of the entire work. Obsessive discussions on identity and the nature of cinema (only partially present in the novel – the latter subject especially comes up only in Kaufman’s adaptation, and no equivalent discussion of literature is present in Reid) make this revelation pretty on-the-nose, bringing direct, textual attention to the film’s own unstable nature. But it really is true: Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things attempts, with increasing desperation, to be anything but just that – a film. The auteur goes to great lengths to include long-form, literary narration alongside scenes that embody almost every other medium in existence, from still photography, animation (of the cartoon, advertising, and cinematic varieties), poetry, landscape painting, film criticism (arguably not a true, traditional art, but I’ll accept the compliment nonetheless), dream ballet, and musical theater. (I’d also like to add that the extended dialogue scenes in Jake’s car are basically like watching really boring, distinctly American theater or listening to an especially poorly executed and enervating podcast, but I’ll admit that that would be a bit of a stretch.) As if uncomfortable in its own cinematic skin, the film desperately cycles through medium after medium, flashing through different modes of being only to cage itself within the claustrophobic, long-take interiors of Jake’s car, his parents’ home, the hallways of the local high school, and other such hotbeds of conflicted identity. Sure, in a way, all of this is just an adaptation of the original novel’s identity crisis, yet it is also undeniably more than that: after all, the novel never calls into question its own status as a novel. The closest it gets are those three pages of “What are you waiting for?,” and I hope we can both agree that that doesn’t hold quite the same intention as Kaufman’s obsessive self-reference.
3. So What Do I Mean by All of That Anyways?
As such, it follows: like Lucy, this film is also just a symptom of some greater destruction. She was very purposefully designed by Kaufman to be that way. The film’s caustic self-hatred, and the larger cultural context that spawned it, makes sure of that.
Now, the next logical question – if Lucy : film, so to speak, then Janitor : ?
Who or what is on the greater, broader decline in this analogy?
This is not fully a rhetorical question, but I’m sure most of you already have at least an inkling as to what the answer could be. First, it’s helpful to recognize that all of these traits that have been weaponized by the film had found their height in the past several decades: intellectualism, pop allusion, irony, narrative, self-reflexivity, cynicism, and meta-reference, to name a few, are all classic hallmarks of the postmodern age. Yet here they are perverted, pushed to their absolute limits to reveal the wide expanse of their blank and empty underbellies, their inability to do anything but destroy everything they touch. To be clear, it’s not that the postmodern irony utilized by Kaufman is just toothless or simply futile: it is that it has got so many teeth pointed in so many directions, so to speak, that it loses sight of its own self. All teeth and no bite, the film simply consumes everything around it, including its own self.
Really, this all just begs the question: if Kaufman hates the movies so much, why even make one in the first place? This is an inquiry made all the more damning by his recent escape into fiction with the publishing of Antkind, or his well-documented difficulties with Hollywood, or even his preceding features: Synecdoche, New York (2008) was a cry for help if anything ever was. Indeed, a similar analysis of it through a postmodern lens reveals that it’s a pretty natural precedent to I’m Thinking: where Synecdoche cuts the cameras right before its aging, overburdened protagonist can finally crawl offscreen and die, I’m Thinking obsessively documents the prolonged aftermath of such a dying moment.
In the context of Kaufman’s career, especially, the film grows only more gargantuanly self-effacing. As one of America’s favorite pop postmodernists, Kaufman’s writing has always been marked by many of the traits he perverts here. Read within his filmography as a whole, the script to I’m Thinking can be construed only as bitter self-parody, as if Kaufman himself is desperate to become – you guessed it – the crazed Janitor embedded within the film’s convoluted narration. It is he (both Janitor and Kaufman), after all, who is the hidden author of Lucy and Jake’s story. If it weren’t for all of the time the film wastes on red-herring cultural discussions and flashy narrative stylizations, the self-insert would be beyond obvious here (so obvious, in fact, that I’ve a sneaking suspicion that half of the motivation for said stylization is simply to, somewhat bashfully, obscure this connection). I’ll leave you to draw the main implication of this authorial connection yourself: suffice it to say, it’s quite messy and beyond unpleasant to witness, especially when you realize that, due to the nature of this extravagant display, Kaufman actually very much wants you (and not just you, but a whole horde of other people as well) to pay rapt attention to it.
In truth, the film’s title can have a myriad of meanings. As much as the novel originally presents “ending things” as both breakup and suicide, Kaufman allows this death sentence to engulf a spate of other relationships as well – his attitudes toward Hollywood, his own career, the movies as a collective whole, and the cultural era that spawned it all. A morbid extension of the central tenets of postmodern art, the work is a chilling emblem of self-destructive finality, bringing to their logical, grisly conclusion the main cultural inventions of the preceding age. In doing so, it identifies what was unsustainable about these impulses from the very start: a movement named after what it is not, the endless negation inherent to “post modernism” was bound to turn on itself eventually. Examining the wreckage left in the wake of this exploration, I’m Thinking captures the predestined death of its central characters and their relationship in the same moment that it captures the death of the film, cinema, postmodernism, and Kaufman’s deep-rooted relationship to all three.
Here the film’s staunch relativism becomes especially, bitterly caustic. As the quasi-sublime pig, who appears to the Janitor during his climactic breakdown, ultimately reveals, “Everything is the same if you look close enough.… You, me, ideas – we’re all one thing,” and so postmodern self-defeat eventually eclipses both the work as a whole and anyone who partakes in it.
Though there is something admirable in this exaggerated post-postmodernism – and, indeed, I can do little to try and fault Kaufman’s formal and technical expertise here in just how absurdly far he manages to run with it – the only arguments the film ultimately makes, in imitation of its main characters, are ones of circular, bitter negation. One has to wonder if there was any genuine, positive truth in undertaking it and, if so, if that truth ever had any chance of registering with Kaufman’s audience: the film’s only saving grace is that it could be read explicitly as a warning emblem of the failure that certain – very popular, mind you! – aspects of our culture will inevitably encounter, yet that notion is neither clearly communicated by Kaufman nor received by his viewers. His viewership, including both average filmgoers and educated critics alike, instead seems to celebrate this vision of post-postmodernity or, at the very least, laud it for its flashy ability.
Further, though it is somewhat entertaining to think that, in giving him this applause, we deny Kaufman the scorn that he so clearly wishes to heap on himself and his work, this action also negates what little good could be reaped from such a project. Make no mistake: as intricately constructed as the pessimism of the film may be, I’m Thinking’s integration of such futile self-defeat into America’s popular narrative is nothing but a warning signal. It is a billboard-wide danger sign, passed by the viewer, themselves speeding down a bleak and desolate winter road in the seat of a solitary car (or perhaps Mussolini’s train?). All of which leaves us in a pretty uncomfortable position, viewer-wise: what does one do, really, when faced with a grown man throwing a cinematic temper tantrum?
Equal parts warning, breakup letter, and deathblow, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a bold but ultimately bitter-tasting exercise in self-destruction. Its imprint on our culture is misplaced, led astray by a general refusal to see the true terror of the film: it presents the fundamental fallacies of postmodernism without even attempting to provide any semblance of a solution. It grabs attention to present a portent of doom, and nothing else, eclipsing everything it touches with its virulent cynicism. As David Foster Wallace, yet another one of America’s famed pop-postmodernists, wasted no words writing, with startling relevancy and specificity to the matter at hand (truly; the essay this quote is pulled from is even alluded to in one of I’m Thinking’s car-ride conversations, lending this whole thing an even eerier symbiosis that I can’t even begin to unpack here), “As for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing but trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow … oppressed.”1
Honestly, I couldn’t have put it better myself.
* * *
Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.
- David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. Back Bay Books, 1998, 25. [↩]