Warning: Spoilers for. I'm Thinking Of Ending Things are ahead.
Everything is fluid in Charlie Kaufman's new film, I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Anecdotes and origin stories shift and change, careers disappear only to reappear as something else entirely, recollections are never correctly repeated, and characters traverse lifetimes within moments before our eyes. Kaufman's most recent exploration of his own anxious psyche and the universal fear of ageing is based on the novel of the same name by Iain Reid. It's the newest big name addition to Netflix's ever growing original movie catalog and is an unsettling trip that's as funny as it is deeply distressing.
After a road trip into rural Oklahoma and a dinner with her boyfriend Jake's (Jesse Plemons) parents that defied the boundaries of time and space, our young female protagonist (Jessie Buckley) — who goes by multiple names during the runtime, including Lucy and Louisa — finds herself stranded at her partner's old high school. It's just one of many nightmarishly strange yet mundane challenges she faces and sets up the movie's big (intentionally vague) finale. As I mentioned before, absolutely nothing about this movie is concrete — not even this explanation — as Kaufman is loath to let us have any easy answers, but there are some solid readings and potential takeaways.
While exploring the halls of Jake's high school, the young woman finds the elderly janitor (Guy Boyd) who we've been seeing at random points throughout the movie. It's not completely clear how the pair seem to know each other but they share a connection in a way it's deeper than anything we've seen her experience with anyone else. Before she heads off to find her boyfriend, the Janitor hands her a pair of slippers that are the exact same pair Jake tried to force her to wear at his parents' farmhouse. It seems to be a hint that the Janitor might in fact be older Jake; we've already seen his parents age years in moments so nothing is truly out of the realm of possibility here. That's followed by an extended ballet sequence performed by dancers dressed as the woman and Jake in which they kill the Janitor only for him to appear and clean up his own body. Kaufman seems to confirm the Janitor is Jake when he walks naked through the halls talking to an animated pig (really) that makes references to Jake's life and sometime career as a physicist.
If you're getting excited that you might have a handle on things, calm down and get ready to be confused once again. Though it's implied Jake might be the Janitor, in the next scene we see an aged Jake who does not look like the Janitor accepting a high profile award on a theatre set for the musical Oklahoma, which is a running theme and touchpoint throughout the film. He's watched by his family and the young woman. Plemons then gets to showcase his vocal prowess as he does a musical number. There are echoes here of Jake's own childhood memories of the show, as well as his recollections of his time in school where the kids he watched over (perhaps as the Janitor?) often selected it to perform. Though it's just as wilfully hard to read as the rest of the film, it fits with the thematic exploration of youth, life, and ageing that I'm Thinking of Ending Things is so committed to.
The final shot shows Jake's car covered in snow in the morning light, confirming that neither of them ever left and that the near never ending night is finally over. But if you wait until after the credits have rolled you'll notice one final mystery to be solved. As they come to an end you can hear a car engine even though the only vehicle is Jake's incapacitated car. Once the text clears you'll see snow falling from the tree as if his car is about to move. ~ Fin ~
So what does it all mean? Well, only Charlie Kaufman truly knows. But the film dissects the fear of ageing and the passage of time, and the use of Oklahoma isn't a coincidence. The musical dissects class, loneliness, and women as property, so the finale featuring Jake singing about his woman, with the elderly young woman looking on — even though we know she wanted to leave him — is far more sinister than it first seems, hinting that she was never able to get free and Jake got his wish to possess her and drag her into a loveless, haunting marriage like his parents.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is ultimately an atmosphere piece and your bandwidth for its ending and its first two acts will rely heavily on your own interest in the abstract, as well as how far you are into your 2020 existential crisis.