Right from its title, Charlie Kaufman’s latest film is up for interpretation. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” could be taken one of two ways. Is the Young Woman (Jessie Buckley) who’s having these thoughts referring to ending her new relationship with Jake (Jesse Plemons), or is it a more sinister consideration of ending her own life?
The film never gives a definitive answer as to which way she’s leaning, and that same ambiguity resonates throughout the entire film. In fact, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” never gives any definitive answers on really anything in its two-hour and 14-minute runtime.
Ambiguity in a film has the potential to do great things for audiences. Whether it’s something as simple as the fate of Dom Cobb’s spinning totem in “Inception,” or something more complex, like the entire premise of Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” there’s something to be gained by not spoon feeding an audience. But when that quest for ambiguity and varied interpretations comes at the cost of a coherent story and leaves audiences questioning what they just watched, then is it really worth it?
At its core, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” follows a new couple on a road trip. Buckley’s Young Woman – that’s how she’s billed in the credits – is traveling deep into the countryside with her boyfriend of seven weeks, Jake, in order to meet his parents for the first time at his childhood farm home. As the two travel down empty roads and deeper into a blizzard, though, they seem more like a couple on a first date than one a few months into dating. Jake drones on and on about poetry, musical theater, and other topics, interrogating the Young Woman about her interests, all while she halfheartedly answers and an inner monologue repeatedly raises that idea: “I’m thinking of ending things.”
After their long journey into the snow, the couple arrives at Jake’s home, but the uneasiness only continues to magnify with the added presence of Jake’s Mother (Toni Collette) and Father (David Thewlis). On the farm, reality begins to bend, as the Young Woman experiences repeated events, converses with the Mother and Father at various stages of their lives, and observes a series of inconsistencies in her world. There’s never any clarity on who or what is truly real, what actually occurs or is simply imagined, or even if everything audiences witness is some sort of dream or hallucination.
After wrapping up dinner at the house, the couple once again ventures into the storm to return home, but Jake’s inexplicable detours lead them to a creepy roadside ice cream shop, and ultimately, to his old high school where they encounter an unnamed custodian audiences have seen glimpses of in cutaways throughout the film. Again, there’s no telling what’s past, present or future, who is really who, or why any of this fantasy is even happening – and then the film ends.
In the end, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” raises far more questions than it answers. In fact, it never answers any of its questions. Complexity in a film is essential for those looking to dive deeper than surface-level thrills, but complexity for its own sake with effectively no payoff is an easy way to turn off audiences. Plus, when that confusion is paired with such joyless and uncomfortable – albeit intentional – story and dialogue, the film quickly becomes as hopeless as its characters.
As things drag on along the road trip the feeling of existential dread builds, and it’s evident that some dark and ominous twist is looming – but someone forgot to tell Kaufman. Hints at a mysterious basement plant the seeds for a “Parasite”-like twist when the Young Woman ventures down the stairs, yet there’s no dramatic change up to be found. Again, as the couple crosses paths with the unknown janitor it seems a third-act revelation may occur. Nope. Instead, the never ending wait for any sort of reward continues long into the minuscule credits.
It’s possible that “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” rewards repeat viewings, allowing audiences to further grasp each and every surreal twist, however its bloated 134-minute runtime and general unpleasantness highly discourages a rewatch.
Despite the confusion and other issues, there’s no denying the strength of the performances in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” – particularly of Buckley and Collette. As the Young Woman, Buckley delivers a melancholy and disenchanted performance, and her uneasiness is the closest thing audiences have to a vessel to which they can relate. Collette, on the other hand, is eccentric and scatterbrained. Whether she’s playing a new mother or an elderly patient on her death bed, that traditional Collette intensity is ever present. That’s not to discredit anything about the performances given by Plemons and Thewlis, seeing as they each hold their own.
However, no masterclass of acting is enough to rescue this convoluted film. Even for a writer-director known for pushing the limits of storytelling and realism, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” goes too far, leaving audiences as confused and uninterested as the Young Woman herself.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.