Charlie Kaufman's 2020 film is a tremendously weird film about how tremendously sad life can be.
In a year that was already plenty difficult and disturbing, Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 quarantine stream I’m Thinking of Ending Things may have been—well, just too much. Even those familiar with the writer-director’s mind-bending style (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) were likely caught off guard by what was easily Kaufman’s most bizarre and bleak contribution to date. But now, as the world returns to normal two years after its release, we can perhaps better grapple with this strange but deeply human story about the pain of loss—especially the loss of communion and hope.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
The film opens up on an unnamed young woman (a masterful performance from Irish actress Jessie Buckley) heading out into a snowstorm with her new boyfriend, Jake (played by Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents for the first time at their rural farmhouse. She apparently is torn over the relationship, and when we hear her thinking about it (“I’m thinking of ending things”), Jake appears to hear, too.
In the course of their tense drive, the woman recites a long, sad poem titled “Bone Dog.” As it turns out, “Bone Dog” is actually a poem written by Eva H.D. in her collection Rotten Perfect Mouth—the first of many allusions in the film to literature, musicals (Oklahoma! plays an especially important role), and film. When they arrive at the farmhouse, things only get more tense—and surreal. The woman’s identity seems bizarrely fluid and confused—her name, hobbies, and clothes all shift from scene to scene—and Jake’s parents, over the course of the night, age into decrepitude and dementia, only to suddenly regain their youthfulness again.
There are many clues as to what’s actually happening, but the biggest clue is front and center: The film repeatedly shifts from this couple on this bizarre trip to a farmhouse with an older man living alone and going to work at a high school as a janitor. As the story rolls on, Kaufman shows the janitor to be Jake as an older man, and everything else—given its dream-like quality—a kind of fantastical struggle playing out in the older Jake’s mind.
The woman simply reflects back various aspects of his own personality and life (in the original book from which it’s adapted, she is identified as someone he briefly met in a bar), and her “I’m thinking of ending things” turns out to have a new meaning: Jake, now a lonely janitor caught between phantasmagoria of his mind and the ache of his invisible life, is thinking of ending his own life.
All of this comes to a head when the young Jake and his girlfriend—after another long, tense drive—arrive at the high school where the janitor is, leading to a surreal final act that was undoubtedly a bridge too far for many viewers. The clear implication is that this janitor has come apart at the seams and then died—very likely by his own hand, as the novel has it.
Behind the horror and absurdity of this story is a great sadness. Jake the janitor lives alone, works alone, eats lunch alone. He doesn’t appear to be have any family or friends. He passes through life like a shadow. “Sometimes it feels like no one sees the good things you do,” the young Jake remarks as he feeds his aged mother. Later, we see him shed tears by her deathbed. Jake has clearly experienced loss.
He also observes (and apparently has experienced) the awful exclusion and isolation many young people face in school. All throughout, Mother Teresa’s insight is on full display:
“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. . . . The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty—it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”
Jake’s passions are physics and art; his world is the world of mere matter and imagination. “There is no objective reality,” he says at one point to his girlfriend, pointing out that color only exists in the brain. But Jake has not only lost a sense of contact with an objective present; he has also lost a sense of a worthwhile future. “I suspect humans are the only animals that know the inevitability of their own death,” he remarks at one point. “Other animals live in the present; humans cannot. So they invented hope.” Later, he contemplates “the lie of it all”—“that it’s going to get better, that it’s never too late, that God has a plan for you.” Jake is not just a lonely man; he is a man without the hope of any ultimate meaning. He lives a life, as Thoreau said, of quiet desperation.
Is there a way out for him? Earlier in the film, we do briefly see the older Jake listening to a Christian radio station, where he hears: “Accept Jesus into your heart. For as Isaiah 1:18 tells us, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’” Nothing more is said about faith or Jake’s possible embrace of it. It’s a powerful signpost, however remote and small, of the call to another way, a way that sheds light on our darkness, drawing us into the communion of God’s suffering love—the greatest hope and deepest meaning of human life.
If I’m Thinking of Ending Things shows us this way, it is only by not showing it. It is a tremendously weird film about how tremendously sad life can be—and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Kafka once said, “We need books that affect us like a disaster … like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I’m Thinking of Ending Things is just such a story. It reflects back the great loneliness—and looniness—of a world that has lost its bearings.
Maybe such a film can afflict the comfortable, but also comfort the afflicted—including those thinking of ending things. It reminds them that they’re not alone, and that—for them, at least, if not for Jake—there is still the hope of a new tomorrow. As Walker Percy, whose own father and grandfather both ended things, wrote, “The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive.”