SPOILER ALERT: This review reveals major plot points of the film I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
I, and probably everyone, watched I’m Thinking of Ending Things twice. You have to because there’s a twist ending that makes everything come together, so you have to view the beginning from a new perspective. But if you’re like me, you like when movies make sense the first time around, and this is a movie whose primary goal is certainly not to make sense.
Naturally, that makes it very aesthetic and all, but, call me old-fashioned; I prefer to focus on plot.
This film, according to director Kauffman and Film Bros anyway, tells the story of a man crippled by mental health conditions exacerbated by movie-like expectations for his own life that are never met.
Specifically, this movie details the road trip the protagonist, Lucy, — or Lucia, or maybe even Amy — takes with her boyfriend, Jake, to meet his parents, though they also visit a local ice cream shop and Jake’s old high school. Lucy, as we learn quickly in voiceover, is considering “ending things” with Jake, which complicates the visit to his rural hometown as she tries to find a saving grace for the relationship based on his upbringing. Alongside this main plot, viewers gain vague glimpses into the anxiety-ridden daily life of an elder janitor, who whispers unsettling things like “one final question to answer” and “I can feel my fear growing,” though his purpose of this side-story isn’t clear until the end.
That’s where I’m Thinking of Ending Things actually goes — a.k.a. ruins the story — with a twist ending.
Lucy follows Jake into his old high school after he has disappeared inside to confront the person he thought was watching the couple as they kissed while they stopped there to throw away their food. Jake seemingly disappears and Lucy asks the school janitor, the one from the movie’s side plot, if he’s seen Jake. When he asks her what Jake looks like, the unsettling truth is finally revealed, as she explains she met Jake “long ago” and doesn’t actually know him, but just ran into him at a college trivia night, though the two did not speak, as she saw him as a nuisance.
The movie implies its entire plot consists of the janitor imagining a relationship with Lucy, who he met many years ago, and trying to fit this relationship that might have been inside his life’s timeline. The movie ends with the janitor choosing to freeze himself to death in a snowstorm and this suicide is the “ending things” that’s alluded to in the movie’s title. The janitor then passes on to a happier afterlife where he can live out his movie-based fantasies.
My main problem is with why most viewers watch the movie twice: we can’t actually guess this “twist ending” — if we can even call the cliche of “it was all a fantasy” an ending. This suggests the story told before the ending can be entirely different from the one at second viewing.
Frankly, I think the first story, which depicts an unsettling horror story of a couple in turmoil, was more interesting.
The couple’s relationship dynamic is unique, even challenging, which distracts from the intended theme of oneness between Jake and Lucy’s characters. For example, despite Lucy considering ending their relationship, her voiceover tells us the couple has a “rare, intense attachment.” The two debate pretentious topics like the time’s linear dictatorship over humanity, and survival as the only inherent trait binding cellular life and theoretical ideas — all while referencing famous artists and intellectuals, of course.
The couple’s discussions, during a first viewing, seem to mirror their fighting for their relationship, but looking back after the twist ending, are simply used for creating general creepiness. For example, while driving, the couple passes a new swing set outside of an abandoned house. In the moment, viewers can interpret the couple’s debate over why the set is there as reflecting their approach to their relationship. Jake focuses on a future together as Lucy is unsettled while insisting that the home’s occupants are just renovating the home and trying to entertain their children for the time being. The couple’s differing views mirror their unspoken conflict of a possible breakup, which is what makes their relationship so compelling for viewers, so much so that we don’t read into the actual conversation too much.
However, disappointingly, these character-focused moments are reduced to importance by the topic of the debate, like the damage movies can have on one’s perspective, instead of the way the audience interprets it without knowledge of the twist ending. We see these debates as windows into the characters’ emotions, specifically the non-voiced over Jake. This is ruined, however, by the ending, when we realize the couple’s discussions (like when they listen to a song from “Oklahoma!” and discuss how movies change people’s perspectives on real life) are only meant to provide clues for figuring out the larger plot of the janitor’s fantasy, prior to the revelation at the school.
After rewatching the movie and realizing that so many scenes are simply for aesthetic purposes and hardly contribute to a “plot,” it’s just a disappointing watch.
Additionally, viewers become attached to a rather compelling initial story because the (admittedly pretty) unsettling, horror movie aspects are simply too ambiguous, suggesting that they have to contribute to the narrative they’ve been introduced to.
While the start of the road trip is more mundane, there are some moments where the audience may become unsettled, though the reason why is not clear until the end. These moments include frantic waving from Jake’s mother as she greets the couple, Jake sharing with Lucy that their farm’s pigs were partially eaten alive by maggots before being killed for their family dinner, and a dog that shows up only when people remember he exists.
These unsettling moments grow throughout the meal with Jake’s parents, which is crucial to the initial relationship-based plot as Lucy uses the home visit to gain more information about Jake and decide if she wants to stay with him. Lucy’s name and occupation change different times Jake references her, along with the story of how they met when Lucy tells his parents, from meeting at a college trivia night to them meeting when she was his waitress at a small diner, teasing that she needed to make the first move since he is cowardly. Perhaps even more unsettling, the stories change directly following a scene where the janitor subplot watches a romantic movie where the love interests interact where the girl is a waitress and she recommends a customer try the burger Lucy says Jake asked for when they met. This story is also retold to a different version of Jake’s parents, whose ages shift — older and younger, even dying, as time seems to change around the couple, with the parents revealing facts about Jake, like his problems with social interaction and his great intelligence.
Though viewers can’t exactly interpret these weird occurrences, they do follow the theme of romance, so we think an appropriate ending would be to connect it to their damaged relationship. But by the time the film ends, viewers like me leave the movie unsatisfied that our story wasn’t resolved.
The audience ends the movie with another plot-based issue, one apparent at second viewing. If the story is about how one man’s life is based in fantasy, why is the story we are given told from the perspective of a female with limited knowledge of the man, who is instead preoccupied with simply figuring out if she wants to break up with the man? In the beginning, she certainly says she’s visiting Jake’s home to learn more about him, which can sway whether she does indeed want to dump him, but she hardly considers Jake’s upbringing when she’s actually at the farm, when other characters provide the only information about Jake. She doesn’t ask one question about him, and when she goes into his childhood bedroom to look for him, she studies its contents out of boredom rather than interest.
Therein lies another issue: the female lead isn’t even real, she’s a fantasy — and perhaps a fantasy of representation. Should the plot have worked better, it’d be easier to excuse this — because, let’s face it, with big-name directors like Kauffman, we usually do — but the movie ends up being a cliche, like plenty of other Film Bro cult classics, with a plot revolving around the male struggles with idealizing women using movie-like fantasy, from examples like Don Jon to Adaptation, which was also directed by Kauffman.
Even worse, the film doesn’t even get this non-message across with originality; it just references a million other works of art that actually do.
Yes, there are many beautiful scenery choices the director makes. Soundwise, it’s exquisite, with dialogue frequently muffled and scenes shot with orchestral background music, even if these distract from the plot. Scenes are also shot in beautiful ways, utilizing strange angles, like behind the characters, that contribute to — as all these aesthetic devices seem to because there’s hardly any plot to aid — a feeling of uneasiness.
Even though the director did an extraordinary job using sound and camera technique, I still don’t think that makes up for a weak plot. I honestly think Film Bros are only obsessing over this movie right now because they feel smart when they go back and understand the “plot” that loosely ties together all the weird occurrences throughout the movie upon second viewing.
So, to summarize, if you value a film’s direction and appreciate aesthetic, metaphorical, and somewhat pretentious works, then definitely watch it. If you prefer to watch for a good plot, it really depends on what kind of movie you want to watch, since it has two plots. If you want the one with the “it was all a fantasy” ending, this is the movie for you.
Feature image: Courtesy of IMDB