Everything is Nothing in ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

Jessie Buckley in I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020). Lucy, a young white woman with curly ginger hair and wearing a black floral dress, is filmed looking out from behind a car window, glazed over with blue shadow and slightly out of focus. She looks upwards, morose.

“I’m not going to have a cat jump out; I’m not going to have [scary] music or editing unless I can subvert them into something else. I bring it back to the things you said I find scary. Which are aging, loneliness, losing your mind, and falling apart.”

 – Charlie Kaufman, The Atlantic

Everything is a little bit … off this year. Holed up in our homes – in most cases our childhood ones – we seem to have lost our reins on time. Sometimes it goes by so fast, we flip our calendar pages only to find that it’s inexplicably September; naturally, we refuse to believe it. At other points, it goes by unbearably slowly. We wish we could do anything but to acknowledge the passing of it. 

Time is everything; it shapes our understanding of the universe, our relationships with others, as well as with ourselves. Our sense of it is also widely subjective. Charlie Kaufman, whose work is defined by recurrent existential themes and absurdist humour, is obsessed with it. From Synecdoche, New York to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he employs it as a device to remind us that our existence is fleeting and that everything, including our sincere attempts at human connection, is meaningless in the grander scheme of things. In this year’s unlikely Netflix release, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the looming threat of time is not only troubling, but downright terrifying. Though time is everything, time does not care for us. It is unforgiving and cold, wringing out the life in us like the water from a damp towel. 

Fears surrounding time and the passing of it are age-old, stemming from our fear of death, decay and, in some cases, eternity (coined apeirophobia). I’m Thinking of Ending Things embodies these fears, in a typical Kaufmanesque direction; meaning that though this is his most straightforward attempt at a horror film, the structure of a traditional horror film is by no means present here.

David Thewlis and Jessie Buckley in 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' (2020). Father, a middle aged man in a worn plaid shirt with a plaster on his forehead, wilts on the sofa with a crinkled brow. Next to him sits Lucy, the young woman in the floral dress, sat stiffly upright and looking confused and vaguely concerned about her surroundings, a dimly-lit and old-fashioned living room.

It starts as a movie about a couple near its breaking point. Lucy (Jessie Buckley), referred to by a string of different names throughout the film, is thinking of ending things with Jake (Jesse Plemmons), while on a road trip to see his parents out in the country. We hear her internal dialogue and through it, her inability to communicate with her boyfriend. There’s something inexplicably wrong there; in the relationship, though still in its early days, and with the road trip itself. They drive through a blizzard. She sees brand new swing sets by abandoned barn houses. The pigs that are supposedly missing from Jake’s parents’ farm are later served on a plate at the dinner table.  Later on, the tension rises between her and Jake as they bicker about John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. It’s oddly reminiscent of the uneasiness felt in The Shining, as we’re foreshadowed very early on with the fate of the Torrance family on their drive Overlook Hotel. 

Dinner with the parents (who are brilliantly played by Toni Colette and David Thewlis) does not go to plan. Nothing is as it seems with them, as they argue over how childhood memories played out (was it the Genius or Genus edition of Trivial Pursuit that Jake succeeded at?) and what Lucy’s profession is (so far she has been interchangeably referred to as a scientist, poet and artist). Throughout the film, though this happens more times than can be recalled, there’s a constant shifting between the characters, their backstories and their roles. Lucy explores the house and meets a few different versions of Jake’s parents, both old and young. Defects of time start to appear; Jake’s mother expresses her discomfort with her tinnitus and his father fails to remember Jake’s childhood bedroom, as well as the word for Alzheimer’s. As time expands and retracts, Lucy seems less and less perplexed by it. We as the viewer are left wondering what version of reality we should believe in.

The parallels between I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Synecdoche, New York are difficult to ignore. Outside of postmodern vertigo (the panicky feeling one gets when they realise the potential meaningless of everything), both films provoke the feeling that, when you look at the wider picture, everyone you know is a reflection upon a reflection, a living combination of traits derived from other people. Millicent Weems (Dianne Wiest), who appears as several simultaneous characters in Synecdoche, says that, “This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone”. Like the play gone haywire in Synecdoche, everything is recited, or seems to be planned to some degree in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. In one scene, Jake and Lucy re-enact the “creepy basement” trope which is so often found in horror movies. However, when Jake goes a step ahead in his performance and says, “He’s hiding in there” (we understand this to mean the janitor we see at several points in the movie), Lucy responds with a scared confusion. The overlap between what is performance and what is real becomes harder for her to separate.

Jesse Plemons in I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020). An elderly Jake in ageing makeup with grey hair, is wearing a tuxedo and a Nobel Prize medal, performing a song on stage, gazing out at the audience.

The fear that all our lives are identical, bookended by birth and death, is a difficult thing to accept. The way we try to overcome our fear of insignificance is through narcissism. In most, if not all of Kaufman’s works, we see people who are unable to look past their egos, therefore never managing to achieve real connection. The biggest twist in I’m Thinking of Ending Things is the discovery that Lucy (and perhaps Jake) appears to be a figment of a lonely janitor’s imagination, who tries to ground his personality (and thus defeat death) with literary and artistic references. As put by Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, ‘one of the main functions of culture is to help us successfully avoid awareness of our mortality …  by making us feel certain that we, or realities we are part of, are permanent, invulnerable, eternal’.

The characters in movies are unquestionably narcissistic. They assert their ideas with importance, though are only seen quoting other people’s opinions (see: Lucy’s hilarious recitation of Pauline Kael’s real-life criticism of A Woman Under The Influence). The protagonist, Lucy, is a reflection of Jake’s fantasies. A poem she recites, Bonedog, is passed off as her own, yet is actually from a book of poems she finds in Jake’s house. When he says that her poem sounds like it was “written for him”, this is to mean that it was quite literally chosen by him. However, Kaufman challenges the notion that women exist as blank slates for men to project their intellectual and sexual desires onto. Lucy, though her thoughts are constantly being shaped by Jake’s, manages to question his ideas, showing him that he’s ultimately unsure of what he wants. 

In a surreal final act, we’re shown Jake in an auditorium, performing “Lonely Room” from the musical Oklahoma. All the world’s a stage, and Jake’s ego is in charge of it. Throughout Kaufman’s work, there’s a sense of omnipresence; he’s looking at our odd ways of confronting death with curiosity, rather than judgement. I’m Thinking of Ending Things shows that life is a rope that unfolds with time, taking different forms, until it eventually becomes nothing. But maybe this isn’t something to fear; our lives manage to be absurd, emotionally poignant, meaningless and meaningful at the same time. It’s all a matter of perspective.

by Emma Pirnay

Emma Pirnay is a 21-year-old psychology-turned-political-science student based in the UK, Luxembourg and France. In her spare time, she likes to make music, take photos of her friends, go for long cycles and people-watch. Her favourite films are Mulholland Drive, Persona, The Shining and Ikiru. Find her on Letterboxd here

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