Netflix chiller I’m Thinking of Ending Things has arrived to confuse and bemuse. It’s based on the novel by Iain Reid, which is also a mystery, and it’s adapted by Charlie Kaufman, a man with a history of playing around with concepts of fiction and reality in his screenplays such as Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no less oblique, no less confusing, particularly if you haven’t read the book and only want to watch the movie once. Yep it’s a movie, and a book, which really requires you to watch/read twice to actually fully understand.
And even then things aren’t crystal clear or cut and dried. However, here’s our attempt to explain what’s going on.
Jake and the narrator
Even though we are told the story through the eyes of the female narrator (Jessie Buckley) she isn’t real. She doesn’t exist. She and Jake are the same person. We see this in a number of ways throughout. Her clothes keep changing. Her name does too – Lucy, Louisa, Lucia etc. Her personality changes too, at points being domestic goddess, at others formal dinner guest, and her job changes – physicist, gerontologist, waitress.
She’s an artist – but of course we learn that the art she shows Jake’s parents is in fact existing art that Jake likes and tries to copy in the basement. She’s a poet – but the poem is just a poem in a book in Jake’s room, and she’s a film critic – we see Jake has a massive book of Pauline Kael’s work and later she embodies Kael.
The narrator is an idealised version of what Jake thinks a girl he met at a pub quiz in a bar might be like. Even their origin story changes – the story about the quiz is told by the narrator in a sort of giddy haze, laughing too loudly and talking about how attractive and smart Jake seemed, how his quiz team’s name was Brezhnev’s Eyebrows and how he’d explained to her who Brezhnev was (he wants a smart girlfriend, but he wants one who acknowledges that he is smarter than her).
Later, though, their meet-cute becomes one transposed from the romcom that the janitor (Guy Boyd) is watching (more on him later). In this version the narrator was a waitress, and Jake a customer, like in the movie – and at one moment on the journey back after the visit to the farm house the narrator briefly switches from Jessie Buckley to Colby Minifie who plays the waitress in the film.
Even though he is imagining his idealised version of a woman he doesn’t know, Jake still manages to envisage a relationship that goes sour. He doesn’t like the Pauline Kael version of her, he’s intimidated. His idealised girl is a feminist so when he makes a joke referencing the song ‘baby it’s cold outside’ they row. Over the course of what appears to be a single night, the two live out what amounts to an entire relationship – the changes of clothes support this – not only is Jake trying out different looks but it also gives the sense that they have been at the farm house not for just one night but for many years.
The two reach a crisis point when Jake insists on driving to his old school to dispose of their unfinished ice cream cups and he enters the school leaving her in the car. More on that in a bit…
Jake and the janitor
Jake and the Janitor are the same person. The film opens with shots of an empty house with the narrator’s voice over which begins with ‘I’m thinking of ending things’. Through Jessie Buckley’s voice we understand this to mean that she’s thinking of breaking up with Jake, but on a second watch however it’s clear Jake – or rather the grown up Jake, who has become the janitor, is thinking of ending his life. In an early scene we see the janitor staring out of the window of his home. He’s reciting the strange mantra that is later the answer phone message that the narrator receives. In the book this is a much bigger and scarier deal – the phone calls are coming from her own number, and this is somewhat echoed in the film – the names that pop up are Louisa and Yvonne – Louisa is the name Jake’s parents give the narrator, Yvonne is the name of the heroine from the movie the janitor watches, who appears in the car at one point.
Throughout the movie there are intercut moments of the janitor traipsing the halls alone, catching glimpses of students putting on a production of a musical and dancing in the corridors, it’s only at the end that we truly understand that he and Jake are the same person and that the narrator is just a projection, a fantasy.
Jake and his parents
Jake’s parents are real but they are also dead. Following the logic that this film is the final fantasy of the now grown up Jake – aka the janitor – we see from the long dinner sequence Jake caring for his mother as she deteriorates and finally passes and his father mourns her. The chair his mother uses is in the apartment we see the janitor in and the opening shots show a house that is tellingly empty.
The janitor and the narrator
Jake goes to dispose of the ice cream cups, returns to the car and is convinced he and the narrator are being watched. Though the narrator protests, he insists on confronting the voyeur, and is gone a long time. The narrator eventually follows him into the school but can’t find him, instead she meets the janitor.
Here we get an alternative look at who the real version of the narrator might have been. At first she tells him she is looking for her boyfriend, but when he asks what he looks like her aspect changes. In this telling of their first encounter, she was at the bar with her girlfriend – it was their anniversary, she says – and Jake was there, but he was a creeper. She then wishes her boyfriend was there, saying that the only time pushy blokes are deterred is if women are with other men. She can’t remember what Jake looks like, she says, any more than she could remember a mosquito that bit her 40 years ago.
In this reading of the story this exchange is not necessarily any more real than the ones that have come before it – it’s all in the janitor’s mind. But it feels like, as he comes closer to making the decision about ending things, he is imagining what really happened, or indeed an awfulized version as opposed to the idealised one he’d been entertaining. On the other hand this is the first time the janitor and the narrator are face to face and she is allowed to talk for herself (even though it’s in the imagination of the janitor). She expresses herself and is given the closest she can get to independence. At the end of the exchange she holds the janitor.
The dance in the school
Idealised versions of Jake and the narrator dance in the corridors of the school. In this dance they play out an idealised life Jake would have wanted – romance, joy, and eventually a proposal and marriage. But a fictionalised version of the janitor joins the dance and eventually kills idealised Jake. The real older Jake, then (the janitor) lives but then acknowledges that he has destroyed and let go of the fantasy of the girl – the narrator. It’s beautiful and sad and filled with self loathing.
The animated pig
We later find the janitor sobbing outside the school in his truck. An animated pig dripping with maggots leads the naked janitor back into the school to perform his final number. The pig is of course referencing the story of the pigs on the farm who were being devoured from the inside by maggots, perhaps as Jake feels he is being devoured from the inside by his own depression. The pig is Jake’s spiritual guide, telling him once he accepts things – death – it’s not that bad. The pig seems like a benevolent creature in the film. In the book though, final references to the maggot-eaten pigs is janitor-Jake’s terror that once he has taken his own life it won’t actually end and that the maggots will continue to eat him.
Jake’s musical number
Jake is a fan of musicals as we learn in the car journey to the farm. The janitor is also seen in the background of several musical rehearsals at the school. After the animated pig leads the janitor inside he imagines his own final farewell as a fake aged up Jake (so Jesse Plemons, not Guy Boyd). He’s on stage to accept some sort of lifetime achievement award in front of an audience which includes his fake aged up mum, dad and the narrator. He’s against a backdrop from the musical Oklahoma! which Jake loves but in his final hoorah the song he sings, ‘Lonely Room’ is sung by Oklahoma!’s outsider character Jud, a deeply creepy bloke who tries to win over the lead female, Laurey, and attempts to kill her beau before falling on his own knife and accidentally killing himself. It’s a lament for a life not lived.
EDIT: As spotted by Kuldeep Singh (pointed out in the comments) Jake’s final speech is John Nash’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech from A Beautiful Mind, the scene echoing that one (video below). Very in keeping with the rest of Jake’s fantasies and reference points.