The new Netflix Original I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) has been one of the most mind-boggling movies of the year. Below you’ll find an interpretation of Charlie Kaufman’s movie, with its perplexing ending explained too.
This year hasn’t been particularly strong in the area of memorable movies. Highly expected films simply didn’t deliver – that is the case of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) – and in the light of numerous festivals being called off, the cinematic momentum has been drastically diminished. Thankfully, Netflix had a few aces up its sleeve.
Back in the beginning of 2020, Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) was announced. Making a comeback from Anomalisa (2015) – an animation regretfully gone under the radar – Kaufman tackled a novel of a Canadian writer Iain Reid. This newest addition to his filmography radiates with metaphors and hidden messages visible only to keen eyes.
Before I begin unwrapping this gorgeously looking and sweetly disturbing gift from Netflix, let’s briefly recap the plot of the movie.
What is I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) about?
A warm feminine voice bitterly shares the desire to end things. That’s Young Girl (Jessie Buckley) who joins her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) on a drive to his parents’ house on a farm. Though they’ve been dating for six months, Young Girl isn’t convinced the meeting’s a sound idea.
On top of that Jake isn’t too fond of the parents either. Rather a sad duty than a joyful event for him, the visit obviously doesn’t go too well.
From that point onwards you’ll see a sea of spoilers.
Who is the protagonist of Charlie Kaufman’s movie?
Most of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) follows the characters played by Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons. Neither of the two is the real protagonist of the story though. While the Young Girl shares her perspective, she’s only a mirage of the main subject of the film. So is young Jake, as they’re both products of the real protagonist’s imagination.
Kaufman vivisects the elderly janitor who appears within the first few minutes of the story, and pops out of nowhere from time to time. The entire story encapsulates the janitor’s dreams as his unfulfilled life comes to an overflow of bitterness.
What exactly hints at that theory?
Take the constantly warped names of the Young Girl played by Jessie Buckley. That’s why he mixes names, his girlfriend’s studies, neither can he stick to one costume that she wears. She’s not lucid, and is only a creation of his mind, possibly an amalgamation of traits he sees virtuous in women. However, he also uses her as a projection of his own existence – she does many things that in real life were his.
I will explain more of that in the latter part of my analysis of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) below.
Let me just say that such a mechanism isn’t uncommon for Charlie Kaufman. The filmmaker likes to fiddle with our minds and thoughts, and wait for the inevitable train of thoughts to come round.
Why does the protagonist hate his home so much?
The answer to this question above resides in the poem – ‘Bonedog’ – however various reasons have been scattered in other scenes too.
“Everything’s worse once you’re home”, as the young Girl melancholically says during the monotonous drive. In ‘Bonedog’ she delves into despair and loneliness of the narrating subject, hence it perfectly fits the story. Kaufman reveals that it’s the protagonist who wrote the poem, therefore it’s his manifesto of how nihilism and negativity connect to his home. Frankly, the poem also depicts how Young Girl feels – sieged and powerless.
Given that Jake embodies the protagonist, a feeling of childhood repulsion comes back and forth a boomerang. Whenever Jake talks about his parents or the farm while driving, it’s mostly vague and lacking in emotional bond. As the couple arrives at their destination even a step through the door strikes as unnatural, and unwanted for Jake.
Therefore, we could suspect that home is related to everything that makes him feel small. Despite good will the parents tend to remind Jake of the things he tried but never mastered – from painting to poetry and studying. That leads me to the next theme.
The Dinner Scene and its meaning
Ah yes, the beguiling dinner scene.
In order to crack down that particular part of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), it’s important to look at hidden metaphors – not its direct meaning.
‘Meeting the parents’ part captures Jake’s troublesome relationship with them. The long conversation reveals trauma, and anger, accumulated over the years spent on the farm, which now find a crack to flow through. Living with an overprotective mother and a simpleton father had its toll on such a fragile, artistic soul. One can’t be surprised – the mother highlights how mediocre Jake’s ventures into the world of art were (the ‘diligence pendant’ part describes it best), meanwhile his dad, on the other hand, can’t appreciate art as a concept in general (“I mean they’re pretty, but I don’t see how it’s supposed to make me feel something if there’s not a person feeling something in them”).
I think that the key to grasp Kaufman’s subliminal message here is to observe the outstanding work of the actors too.
Jake’s body language speaks volumes. Notice how Jesse Plemons keeps his chin down for most of the time, while the closed silhouette indicates the extreme feeling of anxiety of his character – he’s clearly uncomfortable. Furthermore, Jake abruptly turns away every time his mother tries to touch him. That links with a theory of child abuse which I will lay out in the next section of this analysis. Plemons perfectly moderates his voice too – it breaks and drifts into murmur whenever Jake’s about to talk about personal issues and memories.
What about the others? When Jessie Buckley’s character bustles about doing the dishes etc., she’s also a visualization of how Jake was in the past. As we learn later on, the protagonist tended to his dying mother, as well as took care of his dementia-eaten father (the plaster on the father’s forehead is frequently ‘relocated’ – a metaphor of him being constantly lost and unable to function on his own). Any good memories perished on account of less favorable ones taking over.
Lastly, Kaufman highlights the fact that Jake’s fondness of art wasn’t welcome in the house when the mother inquires about the ‘quantum psychics’. The father follows up saying that “it’s quite unusual for a girl” – that’s likely a reimagining of a conversation in which Jake’s father said the same about poetry and painting (on the other hand, Jake probably studied physics himself, a fact brought around by the animated pig near the film’s end).
There’s plenty more of such details weaved into this scene, therefore I whole-heartedly recommend watching it more than once.
What’s up with the basement?
When Jake and the Young Girl first enter the farmhouse, she immediately notices scratches on the basement door. Kaufman deliberately wanted to throw in a horror bit in the movie, thus we see Jake nervously barricading the entrance and spitting a lousy explanation in which the culprit’s the dog.
Indeed, the dog could try to break into the basement, because that’s where Jake was likely to spend much time (the latter scenes explain that it was his art workshop). But think of the reasons – did the dog scratch the door out of longing or did it hear someone down there?
While any abuse looks rather unlikely, a few scenes might indicate the latter. Jake hesitates upon entering the farmhouse, as if stalling the arrival of an inevitable emotional blow that’s about to hit him. Rejecting mother’s touch during the dinner also reveals some issues, and while no direct image leaves hints at an abuse, we can’t cross it out either.
The girl with the bruises at Tulsey Town
The abuse part could also indicate Jake’s darker secrets as someone who hurt others.
In a dreamy sequence when Jake and his girlfriend stop by Tulsey Town, girl at the counter reveals bruises (or skin burns, hard to say) on her arm and hand. Knowing already that Charlie Kaufman doesn’t leave any detail without a purpose, the scene focuses on Jake’s reaction who abruptly turns away as if a lightning stroke him.
One theory is that Jake knows the girl and might have hurt her in the past – maybe in his youth (that’s why her young age is emphasized in the conversation). Since it’s just a theory, the crime could be committed by Jake the janitor too. Take a look at the marks on his hand too – this could either indicate a struggle between them, or some other shared connection.
Earlier in the scene, Jake also shuns away from the two pretty girls, whom we get to meet as pupils in the school where the janitor works. Kids can be harsh, and that reaction points to the way the girls could be picking on him. However, they could also be another victims of his wrongdoing.
The dance-off part?
The third act of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) feels even more oneiric, detached and therefore difficult to grasp – most esoteric for sure.
Kaufman metaphorically describes the struggle of the protagonist. The dancing couple represents an ideal image – happiness, and completion. Their intrinsic choreography focuses on mutual dependence, a kind of symbiosis that’s strange to the janitor.
Then comes the gym dance off that symbolically sketches out how imaginary happiness – being the professional dancer – and reality – his enemy – struggle and brawl. That final moment of death is also a hint that the protagonist lost the battle over his own will to live.
The meaning of Jake’s final speech (and that weird pig!)
After the janitor meets Buckley’s character, and the dance-off proves that life isn’t as Jake imagined, we see Jake act in front of a large audience, including his imaginary girlfriend (however aged).
Let’s wind the clock back for a few minutes though, and think what’s up with the sketched, animated pig that draws the janitor back to school. Pig is often imagined as a dirty animal, and since the real Jake works as a janitor, he also gets his hands dirty a lot. The pig explains there’s nothing with being the loser, ‘a pig infested with maggots’, and even reassures Jake that it’s actually “a draw of luck’. When looked from the micro perspective of atoms – a perspective known only to physicists such as Jake – all matter is the same. Therefore, nobody’s better or worse than him.
There’s another reason for that particular animal. Before Jake and the Young Girl enter the house in the first act, Jake shares his memory of a dying, infested pig.
And so the final speech is the last outcry of someone deeply bitter and depressed. Don’t we all dream of a life crowned with an award that summarizes the accomplishments and successes? Kaufman almost mocks his protagonist, turning it into a total cliche. The artificially aged faces, mother and father listening to their precious son’s acceptance speech – everything in this scene emphasizes the exact opposite of Jake’s life.
What I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) is really about then?
If you managed to come this far, you’re probably having a train of thoughts. I hope that I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) seems clearer and less confusing now. Now we can finally answer the real question – what is this movie really about?
I interpret I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) as a film about the mundanity of life of a deeply sensitive man who never got what he always hoped for.
The plot finds the old Jake drive all the way to the farmhouse, where he says goodbye to all the traumas shackling him for years now. Despite the best efforts, the full disclosure and katharsis never arrives. The crippling depression devours the rest of the fire inside him, and after a brief stop at Tulsey Town – a place he visited every day of his work as a janitor – Jake goes into the school. The film’s finale brings an ambiguous end to the protagonist’s story. He either killed himself or remained in the car only to wake up the next day and face the same routine all over again.
Read a similar analysis of Robert Egger’s enigmatic The Lighthouse (2019), and check out my take on Midsommar (2019) explained.
What is your interpretation of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)? What did you think of the film? Share your views in the comments below!