[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for I’m Thinking of Ending Things.]
To say Charlie Kaufman‘s new movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things embraces abstraction to the point of distraction (and frustration) would be putting it mildly. The director/writer’s Netflix original, adapted from Iain Reid‘s novel of the same name, follows a nameless Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) going to meet her boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis) for the first time. This is the most pat summary of the movie but it barely dives into what I’m Thinking of Ending Things has on its mind or how it chooses to express it to viewers.
If you’ve consumed all two-plus hours of I’m Thinking of Ending Things but are still completely and utterly confounded by that last act, worry not. Here’s what happens at the end of I’m Thinking of Ending Things and, more importantly, what it means. And look, I know there will likely be many interpretations for the end of this movie, including the ones offered by Kaufman. As is often the case with Kaufman’s work, I like to think that every interpretation is valid and all can co-exist simultaneously. This is just my personal reading. Hopefully, it helps you unpack your own feelings about what you’ve watched.
What Happens in the Final Act?
After an unsettling first meeting and dinner with Jake’s parents, he and the Young Woman head home as the blizzard intensifies. A shared memory of the fictional ice cream chain Tulsey Town inspires Jake to search out a roadside stand so they can get a treat, something the Young Woman protests because who wants ice cream in the middle of a blizzard? They stop nonetheless and are greeted by three teenage employees who also appear at the high school where the nameless janitor (Guy Boyd) we’ve also been following works.
The cracks of this couple’s relationship begin to make themselves more apparent as they drive on and continue their wide-ranging conversation. The Young Woman moves from a place of submissiveness to assertiveness, matching every cultural reference Jake makes; this seems to please and annoy him. For example, when he offers up author David Foster Wallace‘s take on television and she throws out French philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord‘s assessment on spectacle. For a second, the Young Woman transforms into Yvonne (Colby Minifie), the female lead in the movie the janitor is watching, further connecting these two worlds.
Jake grows increasingly annoyed with the absurdly large ice creams which are now melting after a few bites. He turns down another equally dark road, promising it leads to his old high school where they can dump the ice cream, and maybe he can show the Young Woman his teenage haunt? The Young Woman is openly ticked off now as Jake’s constant delays mean she can’t get back home to the city on time.
They make it to the high school. Jake gets out, disposes of the ice cream not in a trash can in plain view of his car, but in a dumpster closer to the building. He gets back in the car, but after a few moments gets pissed because he thinks someone is watching them from the main building of the school and goes to pursue the voyeur. The Young Woman gets impatient and goes into the school where she runs into the janitor. He seems sympathetic to her plight and offers her the same slippers Jake offered at the farmhouse so she can walk through the school to look for Jake. The two hug and she goes off.
The final 20 minutes of I’m Thinking of Ending Things turn the abstractness up to 11. Jake and The Young Woman meet and are replaced by lookalikes. These lookalikes perform a dream ballet that shows their loving relationship, then marriage, and their wedded bliss is eventually interrupted by a janitor lookalike who fights with lookalike Jake and kills him. The ballet ends and we switch to the janitor’s point of view as he wraps up after a long day. He changes back into regular clothes and goes out into his car, where the lines between his dreams and reality blur as he hallucinates an old Tulsey Town commercial. He strips off his clothes and is led back into the high school by a vision of the same maggot-infested pig Jake described to the Young Woman earlier in the movie.
The movie ends with Jake, the Young Woman, and Jake’s parents in the school auditorium along with a room of strangers. Everyone is there to honor Jake and his life’s work. We see Jake and the Young Woman’s relationship survived past this awful night and it’s revealed that thanks to the love of the Young Woman, Jake was able to achieve greatness. The movie ends with Jake singing “Lonely Room” from Oklahoma! and the crowd applauding him.
Okay, but WTF Is Actually Happening and What Does It All Mean?
The key plot point from Reid’s novel that hasn’t been transferred into Kaufman’s adaptation is the reveal that the Young Woman and Jake are the same person. In the book, Jake has been constructing an alternate narrative after failing to give his number to the Young Woman he spies at the same pub trivia night they both attend. Their paths never crossed in reality so Jake writes about what would have happened instead. Kaufman’s script makes this point a bit more opaque, instead tweaking this twist by giving us clues Jake and the janitor are the same person (The two men have the same slippers, Jake and the janitor have knowledge of the high school’s Oklahoma! production, and the janitor’s work clothes are in Jake’s parents’ washing machine) to show this entire story is playing out in the janitor’s mind as he goes about his day.
Knowing Jake is the janitor’s avatar helps us make sense out of earlier events. The constant editing of the Young Woman’s name, profession, and clothing, and even the way Jake’s parents look and behave, is happening as the janitor re-adjusts his own idealized narrative inside his head as he imagines it. Jake’s controlling and omniscient presence also makes sense knowing this twist; the Young Woman and his parents become aware of it during dinner since they defer to him at certain points. This also explains the janitor’s near awe of meeting the Young Woman at the high school. He’s finally manifested the woman who’s been in his head and who he’s controlling, but he fails to be as assertive or intellect-forward as Jake, his better self.
The Jake/janitor arc also reveals I’m Thinking of Ending Things‘ interest in critiquing the cultural importance we put on the idea of “great men.” Much like any biography on a man who’s risen from hardship to greatness, the janitor has created his own scenario — Jake and the Young Woman’s relationship leading to dinner with the parents — which can allow for him to craft a comforting narrative about the greatness of intellect and character he perceives himself to have but which he feels goes unappreciated and ignored in the real world (If your “Incel Alert” buzzer is going off, you’re on the right track.).
Throughout the movie, it’s discussed that Jake has always been smarter than other children, has never had time to bother with friendships or relationships, and has always been so temperamental because of his near-genius which he has quietly fostered through reading and competitions and the like. He’s spent his life, alone in his room, surrounded by the great works of fiction, poetry, philosophy, and beyond. He lives in a world where his superiority is falsely affirmed because nobody has been around to question it. He makes every effort to exude intellect and show off just how much he knows because he wants us to believe he has labored and suffered in silence for this intellect. If his girlfriend asks him about something, he seizes the opportunity to turn it into a dissertation. Through the janitor’s scripting, Jake then holds the highest position of importance in every dynamic, even if it’s not clearly stated.
During dinner, when the conversation drifts to the Young Woman’s life and her pursuits, she is rarely the topic of conversation for long or, if it’s clear she might steal Jake’s shine, the janitor (through Jake) quickly edits to make her appear less than or barely equal in her status. Because the Young Woman is a creation of Jake/the janitor’s, it’s even more insidious to see Jake lord his knowledge (and the fictional hardships of his life) over her. Any misstep she makes is one the janitor has created to make Jake look more important, more powerful, superior. He’s allowed to exert his real-life frustrations with women through the Jake-Young Woman dynamic. I mean, she doesn’t even have a name. That should tell you everything about how important the janitor believes her to be in his own delusional narrative.
Jake/the janitor’s unsettling level of control over the Young Woman also ties into the repeated references to Oklahoma!. The references go from subtle (just playing the music) to overt, with the movie’s dream ballet echoing the dream ballet at the end of Oklahoma!‘s first act. Both ballets show a young woman caught between two men. In the beginning, the woman imagines a happy ending with the man she truly loves. Then, the second man interferes, disrupting the relationship and causing pain as he tears the couple apart. The I’m Thinking of Ending Things dream ballet speaks to the fragility of the narrative the janitor has created to take comfort in. When he enters the scene and tries to take over where Jake left off, the illusion begins to crumble and expose who he is. He’s only able to recover some semblance of comfort in the final scenes, which return to the notion of male greatness and the janitor trying to compensate for feeling short-changed by the world by creating his own lifetime achievement ceremony complete with performing a song which discusses how a lonely man (specifically, the janitor) left to live in his own dream world deludes himself into believing he is owed something he is not, in reality, owed at all.
Finally, there is something to be said for the way this movie relates loneliness to the imagination. In Jake/the janitor’s case, loneliness breeds an unsettling, potentially negative imagination which allows for the rationalization of dark thoughts. Even the creation of a fictional world which allows a person harboring a lifetime of perceived slights and channels that frustration into a narrative where he’s the hero looks uplifting when it ending with a happily ever after with your fictional wife, loving parents that don’t exist, and a lifetime achievement ceremony where everyone who’s ever wronged you is forced to applaud you. But, in the cold light of day, is that really what you want?
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is now available to watch on Netflix. For more, check out our review of Charlie Kaufman’s latest.
Allie Gemmill is the Weekend Contributing Editor for Collider. You can follow them on Twitter @_matineeidle.