The meanings of its title sit a little heavily on I’m Thinking of Ending Things, originally a novel by Iain Reid, which Charlie Kaufman has now adapted as a movie (on Netflix). Out of context, I’m Thinking of Ending Things strongly suggests the possibility of suicide. In context too, as it happens. However, in both Reid and Kaufman’s versions it also evokes time, ageing, dementia, loss, what things look like before they go. At one point in the film, in a riff on the old joke about the person who forgets they have amnesia, a man who can’t get started on a sentence without losing track of the word he wants suddenly and fluently says: ‘Truth is, I’m looking forward to when it gets very bad, and I can’t remember that I can’t remember.’
In many ways, the film stays very close to the novel: it follows much of the plot and reproduces some dialogue verbatim. But then, as we might expect of Kaufman, scriptwriter of Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York (which he also directed), the overall effect is not at all similar to the one made by the original. The novel is an intelligent contemporary gothic mystery with a well concealed but decipherable solution. The film is a comedy about dysfunction, and among its many fake failings is its failure to become a horror movie. It holds many more mysteries than the novel. Too many, in fact, for any single solution, though pieces of the plot do hint at a sort of answer, which as it happens is also the one the novel provides.
Both film and novel open with a woman’s voice. It is saying: ‘I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It dominates … I haven’t been thinking about it for long. The idea is new. But it feels old at the same time.’ Here ‘things’ means the woman’s relationship with Jake, who is about to pick her up and drive them to his parents’ house in the country. Of course, a voice in a novel is not necessarily a voice (unless you’re listening to an audiobook) and a voice in a film can also speak to us without making any sound in the represented world, in that way being oddly private and oddly public. Soon after Jake (played in the film by Jesse Plemons) arrives, they set off, and the owner of the voice – the character is called Lucy but is also referred to as Louisa (she is played by Jessie Buckley) – thinks the title thought again. Strangely, Jake seems to hear her, as we have. He says, ‘What did you say?’ and she replies: ‘Nothing.’ Later she talks to herself out loud, which is even stranger, given the long sequences of unvoiced thinking we’ve already been listening to.
The journey to the house is uneventful. Lucy likes the landscape, says ‘it’s beautiful in a bleak, heartbroken way,’ and does a lot of silent thinking – silent so far as Jake is concerned. Jake is awkward and a little pedantic, but Lucy doesn’t mind – in spite of her plan to end things, she still likes him. Lucy does have, for our benefit, a couple of thoughts that help us make sense of what happens in the rest of the film. She tells herself that it’s weird to feel nostalgic for the minor, ordinary moments of a relationship she hasn’t yet given up. And she remembers something Jake once said: ‘Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.’ Cinematically, this sequence is provocatively dull: two people in a car for nearly twenty minutes of film time, with only two or three camera angles. When the shots are from outside the car you can hardly see the couple inside. It’s as if the film is an anti-film.
Things aren’t much livelier at Jake’s parents’ house, but they are weirder. Kaufman goes to town on the meet the parents scenario, and Mum and Dad (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) go through the motions with relish. Mum giggles and gushes; Dad’s idea of joviality is scariness itself. Jake loses his temper in embarrassment. None of this is excruciatingly funny, but it is excruciating. Surely this is where the gothic stuff gets going? Well, yes, in a way. There is no harm, no threat, no grandmother in the attic, but the parents do shapeshift: at various points they are white-haired, dark-haired, crooked, straight-backed, about the same age as their son, twice his age, on their deathbeds or deep in dementia. Dad is the person who gives us the witticism about not remembering. Jake and Lucy don’t appear to notice any of these changes.
It’s interesting to visit Jake’s old bedroom and see some of his books: Wordsworth (whom he has already mentioned in the car), David Foster Wallace and Pauline Kael, both of whom feature later in the film. But interesting isn’t quite the word for Lucy’s finding in one of Jake’s books – Rotten Perfect Mouth (2015) by Eva H.D. – a poem we heard her recite to Jake as one of her own, finished just that morning. Lucy seems never to have seen the book before. On their journey back to the city, these effects multiply. Jake mentions John Cassavetes’s film A Woman under the Influence, and Lucy subjects it to a devastating critical attack, more like a movie review than a comment. That’s because it is a movie review, or a long extract from one, written for the New Yorker in 1974 by Pauline Kael, and Lucy isn’t really quoting it: she’s delivering it, as if she were Kael. A bit later, when she cites Guy Debord on the society of the spectacle, Jessie Buckley’s place is taken for one shot by another actress, Colby Minifie, whom we saw earlier in a scene from a movie another character was watching.
Where are we? In what place can we see people simultaneously at different stages of their lives, write a poem someone else has already written, speak other people’s texts as if we passionately owned them, and get ourselves represented by a stand-in? One answer would be: in a mind able to scramble time at random, and unconcerned by any sense of property. Another would be: in a mind someone else has invented for us, but not managed to take further than an early draft. Lucy comes close to this possibility right at the beginning of the film. ‘What if this thought wasn’t conceived by me but planted in my mind, pre-developed? Is an unspoken idea unoriginal?’ The spectacular final scenes put this idea to work, not as a question but as a kind of platform, a place for fantasy to find its freedom – for the ‘truth’ of thought, in Jake’s sense, to have a real outing. Nostalgia, in this framework, can attach itself not only to what we haven’t yet done, but also to our best achievements in the realm of what we never did. This is how Jake, a dropout physics student, can see himself receiving a Nobel Prize, facing two large audiences, one on the screen and another wherever we are watching the film from.
There is a darker truth to this freedom, of course. It can occur only in thought, and when the elderly Jake gives his acceptance speech in Stockholm, he has to borrow it from John Nash. And not from the real John Nash, who didn’t make any such speech, but from the hero of the movie A Beautiful Mind. And although there’s a wonderful liberty in Jake’s being able to sing, after his speech, a song from his favourite musical, Oklahoma, the song is about unachieved dreams (‘And all the things that I wish for/Turn out like I want them to be’ but ‘It was all a pack of lies’) and begins and ends in the location described by its title, ‘A Lonely Room’. Perhaps, all gothic mysteries apart, this is ultimately where Kaufman’s film takes place.