The Spectacle of Human Emotions
Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is indeed a complex movie that delves into human emotions. It becomes a spectacle deeply rooted in the most fundamental emotions experienced by every human being. The film becomes a close confidant, addressing time, love, and existence—the things that humans fear the most. Thus, if the audience contemplates ending their viewing of the film, they should not do so. While some may feel bored by the seemingly endless conversations or become perplexed by the poetic elements, the film initially revolves around a girl’s desire to end her unsatisfying relationship.
The audience hears her inner voice narrating her feelings about her boyfriend, Jake, and their relationship, which she finds less appealing and somewhat stagnant despite it being relatively new. Feeling bored and dissatisfied, she contemplates ending it all. As their journey progresses and they visit Jake’s parents, strange occurrences begin to unfold. The film takes on surreal elements as Jake’s mother and father appear to age and de-age randomly. Simultaneously, the film increasingly cuts back to an old janitor, who appears to be watching the sequence of the movie alone in a school building.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things becomes an exploration of intricate human emotions and an enigmatic portrayal of reality, making it a thought-provoking and captivating experience for those willing to delve into its depths.
The Uncertainty of the Film’s Understanding
In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, human emotions are portrayed as dreams with ever-changing and uncertain aspects. The janitor appears sporadically throughout two-thirds of the story, with the most constant presence being when Jake’s attitude seems to fluctuate. While both Jake’s parents appear to shift through different time periods whenever they show up, the janitor remains alone at school. Furthermore, other characters refer to the main character by different names, adding to the film’s surreal atmosphere.
At one point, the janitor is seen watching a romance-fiction film by Robert Zemeckis about a waitress. Later, in the next scene, a dinner takes place at Jake’s family house, revealing that the female character works as a waitress. In another instance, the janitor accidentally overhears a conversation between two other characters in the following scene. These moments of observation by the janitor significantly influence the events experienced by the main character and Jake.
The film presents a new perspective to the audience, encouraging them not only to observe the external events but also to explore the complex inner world of emotions and uncertainties. It blurs the boundaries between reality, dreams, and perceptions, leading the audience on an enigmatic and thought-provoking journey.
“I’m Thinking of Committing Suicide”
To comprehend the film as a whole, both audiences and readers need to grasp the most significant clue, which lies in the title: “I’m thinking of ending things.” This phrase is repeatedly uttered by the female protagonist, Jake’s girlfriend. Initially, many people assume it refers to her contemplation of ending the relationship with her new boyfriend as they travel to meet his parents—a noticeable and accurate interpretation. However, the true meaning lies in its expression of suicidal thoughts from within Jake’s actual mind.
As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that the title of the book and the film hold true significance. Jake represents an idealized version of his younger self, while the woman embodies a fantasy projection of someone he had once encountered. He is a guardian of his own mind, grappling with mental health issues that have been exacerbated by a lifetime of profound loneliness. Engaging in daydreams about various scenarios, Jake believes he can alter his life’s course and find a path to happiness. However, Reid, the author of the original novel, portrays Jake in a more intricate manner, with the narrative point of view shifting between first and third person, adding complexity to his character.
In this film, reality blurs with illusion, and the exploration of Jake’s internal struggles brings a profound and introspective depth to the story. Understanding the film requires delving into the intricate layers of its narrative and the psychological complexities of its characters.
The Loneliness and Regret
The film’s appearance is that of horror, with surreal, random, and unsettling moments. However, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is more accurately described as a thriller film that delves into human emotions and their functionality. It is a psychological thriller that hauntingly explores themes of loneliness and regret, leaving a lasting impact on the audience’s psyche. The film is akin to the female character’s description of her landscape painting—though the audience does not directly see it, it evokes feelings of sorrow and sadness. Kaufman skillfully immerses the audience into the emotional depths of the imagery, making them feel deeply connected to it.
As the film progresses, the snowstorm intensifies in the night, and the nearly empty streets reflect Jake’s emotions or the janitor’s cry for help. There is a sense of sadness, coldness, and darkness in the air. The janitor serves as a representation of the audience or humanity as a whole, encapsulating the essence of every human being.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things functions as a thought-provoking exploration of the human psyche, delving into the complexities of human emotions and the intricacies of the human experience. It is a captivating and introspective journey that leaves the audience pondering long after the credits roll.
The Same Person
Apart from being an observer, the janitor has been attentively observing many people. Along with watching movies, he witnesses students growing and passing through the school. He hears and sees a lot, but no one pays attention to him. The story begins at Jake’s house, where Kaufman takes the audience to Jake’s childhood room filled with books and films. In the “forbidden” basement of Jake’s house, there are clothes bearing the same logo as the janitor’s uniform in the washing machine. This undeniable common thread links what initially appears as two separate narratives. Jake, despite not being a man with an extensive knowledge of literature and film, is, in fact, the janitor—someone who has spent years amidst a diverse group of students with their experiences and stories. They are one and the same person.
The revelation of Jake’s identity as the janitor brings a sense of interconnectedness to the narrative, blurring the lines between reality and perception. The film delves into the complexities of human experience and explores themes of loneliness, identity, and the universality of human emotions. It challenges the audience to question the nature of reality and the boundaries of the human mind.
The Psyche of Jake
By delving into Jake’s psyche, we, as viewers, can relate to the act of immersing ourselves in numerous movies and books. In our daily lives, whether in person or on the internet, we often find ourselves observing and paying attention to other people’s behaviors. Everything we encounter, from what we read to what we observe, easily becomes a part of our imagination and the stories we weave in our minds.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things serves as a manifestation of human emotions through Jake’s perspective as the janitor. Having witnessed so much throughout his life, he constructs stories about his own existence, shaping it according to his desires. The scenes with his parents display the shifting of their ages as he envisions them across different timelines. It’s true that as humans, we often find ourselves reflecting on past decisions and wondering about the “what ifs” in our lives. Regret can be a common emotion as we ponder different paths and possibilities.
In Jake’s case, we question how someone with such a broad-minded perspective could end up as a janitor—a place that appears to symbolize his sense of regret and missed opportunities. It highlights the theme of reflection and self-exploration, as well as the complexity of human emotions and the ways in which we shape our own narratives.
The Woman Under the Influence
At the end of the film, the audience is presented with a reveal that sheds light on the true nature of Jake’s relationship with the young woman. While conversing with the janitor in the school hallways, the woman’s friendly demeanor suddenly changes, and she expresses her worst fears about what he might be thinking. This revelation is entirely foreign to Jake, and it becomes evident that he was seen as a creeper by the woman.
In the book, Jake is portrayed as a socially awkward young man who rarely ventures outside his home. During a trivia game at a bar, he meets the young woman who smiles at him but refrains from giving him her phone number. Jake wonders if it would have made any difference if he had her number and ponders this question in the final moments of his life. However, for Jake, it becomes an impossible and unimportant consideration for the future.
As the janitor, Jake has constructed a fantasy of the young woman, drawing from the books he reads and the movies he watches. He knows very little about the real woman, as she was merely a passing acquaintance from years ago. Nevertheless, throughout the film, the woman’s character keeps changing as Jake imagines different versions of her. At times, she appears as a physicist, and at others, she takes on the persona of a poet, even using a poem from the book Rotten Perfect Mouth by Eva H. D., which he finds in his childhood bedroom.
During their journey to Jake’s house, the young woman’s character shifts once more as she suddenly starts smoking—an aspect that Jake perceives as not only dating cute women but also intellectually intriguing ones, seemingly contradicting each other.
The Phase of Regret
Regret can haunt every human being in various ways. Apart from regretting specific actions or decisions, guilt can also arise from missed opportunities or regretting the path not taken in life. Finally, regret can become bitter when the reality of the world does not align with the beautiful imaginations humans hold. Carrying these kinds of regrets can make life miserable, just like Jake’s experience.
From the events depicted in the film and Jake’s essay about how he envisions his life should be, the audience can infer that Jake regrets never having the courage to pursue a romantic relationship. He regrets not being able to make his parents happy, failing to achieve his career aspirations, and feeling ignored by the world. Jake lives in a state of self-imposed guilt. Instead of taking steps to improve his life, he immerses himself in creating elaborate stories in his mind while wandering the snowy and narrow streets, but ultimately, he remains stuck and unable to move forward.
Despite Oklahoma! being a significant pop culture moment in various American mediums, its use in the film is purely symbolic and not present in the book at all. However, the inclusion of Oklahoma! in describing Jake’s overall psychology makes sense, even at a superficial level. As the janitor watched students practicing Oklahoma!, he began to drift into a daydream.
One of the songs from the musical is about a romance between a handsome boy and a dashing farmer girl, but it represents false optimism. In the final act of the film, it takes a complicated turn, incorporating Oklahoma! into Jake’s fantasy. The dream ballet sequence takes place in a school hallway, where Jake imagines himself as Curly, and the young lady as Laurey, just like in the musical. However, the evil farmhand character from Oklahoma! begins to merge with Jake’s romantic fantasy, representing an older version of himself or the janitor.
At this point, Jake has to confront the notion of reality, realizing that he is not the handsome hero from the story, but rather the antagonist—a man plagued by loneliness, frustration, and evil tendencies. In the film’s conclusion, Jake, with old makeup, stands on the school theater stage with Oklahoma! as the backdrop. His mother is with him on the scene, and a crowd of teens, all in old-fashioned stage makeup, gathers to hear Jake’s final fantasy speech before he dies.
Jake takes his place in Jud’s lonely little sad hut, adorned with items from Jake’s original room. Afterward, he sings Lonely Room, a song from the Oklahoma! stage version, representing Jake’s fantasy of winning the young woman. Tragically, Jake has lived a life full of doubt, despair, and depression, ultimately leading to his demise.
The Multiple Views
The final image of the film shows a janitor and his car encrusted with snow, with Jake having died in front of the school in the middle of the night. It is both beautiful and tragic, representing the story of a man who faced life’s failures until his last moments. Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t hide much from the audience, especially when it comes to exploring human emotions.
The film becomes a deeply personal and contemplative journey, unfolding into a surreal fantasy that lingers with the audience, evoking a cold feeling of sadness. Similar to Synecdoche, New York, this film requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate its complexity and symbolism, with the final act proving to be more profound than expected. It is a work that delves into the depths of human emotions.
Identity, aging, connection, love, and existence are the themes that Kaufman’s films explore, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no exception. It presents a profound exploration of the human psyche and leaves the audience with a lasting impact.
- Green, S. (1984). Oklahoma!: Its Origin and Influence. American Music, 88-94.
- LaRocca, D. (2011). The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman. University Press of Kentucky.
- Robinson, J. (2020). Charlie Kaufman’s Confounding I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Explained. Vanity Fair.