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Charlie Kaufman’s Guide to ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’: The Director Explains Its Mysteries

If Kaufman's enigmatic Netflix drama has you scratching your head, fear not: The director has answers.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

[Editor’s note: This article contains major spoilers about the plot of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”]

Charlie Kaufman is not a fan of solving movies for his audience. “I’m not really big on explaining what things are,” the writer-director said in a phone interview. “I let people have their experiences, so I don’t really have expectations about what people are going to think. I really do support anybody’s interpretation.”

Nevertheless, nothing in Kaufman’s head-spinning repertoire has begged for answers more than “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” His scripts for “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” took bizarre labyrinthine paths into the troubled male psyche, a journey he continued with directing efforts “Synecdoche, New York” and “Anomalisa.” In his new Netflix-produced feature, however, Kaufman has built a story steeped in the details of a single troubled mind, and littered it with so many references it practically demands a masterclass in semiotics to parse them all.

That’s by design. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” pulls from Canadian writer Iain Reid’s 2016 novel, but Kaufman has taken many liberties with the text, even as the basics of the story remain unchanged: Jake (Jesse Plemons) takes new girlfriend Lucy (Jesse Buckley) on a snowy drive to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). As the title implies, Lucy, the narrator, has already considered dropping him. As this possibility settles in, the couple endure an awkward dinner, then depart for an icy drive home that culminates with a detour to Jake’s high school. In the meantime, the school’s old janitor (Guy Boyd) roams those hallways in a lonely routine, eventually crossing paths with the couple for a surreal climax.

That climax marks a huge shift from the psychological thriller twist of Reid’s book, which takes a literal-minded turn to explain the moments leading up to it. Kaufman has instead bathed the whole movie in ambiguous signifiers right down the final scene. “I don’t know if it was an epiphany or breakdown with ‘Adaptation,’ but since then, I’ve found that I’m most successful with adaptations when I allow myself to take it and do with it whatever makes sense to me,” he said. “If I don’t allow that to happen, then I end up with something that feels dead to me.”

The result is a dense, hypnotic narrative so overloaded with information that no first viewing can absorb it in total. While “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” may baffle or frustrate viewers trying to parse it from moment to moment, it also has a clear-cut sense of purpose: Jake, whose childhood room is loaded with books, DVDs, and other detritus from his youth, has so fully absorbed the media surrounding him that it seems to govern every aspect of his reality. It isn’t necessary to understand every reference to grasp this aspect of the movie, or even appreciate its intent, but these intellectual pathways enrich the nature of the enigma and reward repeat viewings.

Here’s our official FAQ, with input from Kaufman, for audiences eager to learn more.

Fair warning, if that spoiler alert up top hasn’t scared you off yet: “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” benefits from the eerie puzzle-like nature of its design. If you’d like to retain that aspect of it, try watching it on its own terms first, then double back to this breakdown to go deeper. In true Kaufmanesque style, these are our answers to our own questions; all the quotes come from Kaufman.

Why does it seem like Jake can hear Lucy’s thoughts?

In the opening sequence of the movie, Jake and Lucy endure an interminable drive up to his parents’ house, while Lucy continues to contemplate leaving him. On several occasions, Jake glances over to Lucy during her voiceover, sometimes interrupting it. Is he telepathic? The answer is actually quite simple. At the end of Reid’s novel, it’s revealed that Jake and his unnamed girlfriend are the same person — the lonely high school janitor, who invented her as his fantasy. Think “Psycho” meets “Fight Club.”

It doesn’t take long for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” to imply as much. When Lucy, an aspiring poet, shares one of her verses at the dinner table, it’s actually a sampling from “Rotten Perfect Mouth,” a collection of writings by real-life poet Eva H.D. Later in the movie, it’s not even clear if Lucy’s name is Lucy. (He calls her “Ames.” Amy?) Jake has built her out of the books, movies, and passing encounters that have shaped his isolated worldview.

So Lucy’s the main character and she also doesn’t exist?

Well…yes and no. The most sophisticated gamble of the movie is that Kaufman has taken this device and turned it into an open question: Can a fantasy exist on its own terms?

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Netflix

“She is a device, but I wanted her to be able to separate herself from that,” Kaufman said. “I didn’t want it to be a twist. I felt like that would not work in a movie at this point in history. When you make a movie, everything that’s sort of ambiguous becomes concrete. You’ve got people playing these things. You can see them.”

Needless to say, Buckley turns in a rich, haunting performance as a woman grappling with the uncertainty surrounding her. “To my mind, it would have been a misuse of any actress not to give them something to play that was real,” Kaufman said. “Because of the device that the book uses, it wasn’t required, and I needed it to be there.”

Fine, but that still doesn’t mean she’s a real person.

Right. But she has a definite representative power as Jake comes to terms with the impossibility of his delusion. At one point, he asks Lucy if she’s read Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel “Ice,” which takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (not unlike the dreary outdoors that surround the movie’s two big car rides). The protagonist of “Ice” spends most of the book pursuing an unnamed woman while wrestling with the complicated nature of his attraction.

In “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” the character endures that same struggle when the fantasy fights back. It’s a storytelling gamble unique to the art of cinema: Within the “world” of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” — one controlled by Kaufman as well as his protagonist — Lucy exists. “I needed her to have agency for it to work as a dramatic piece,” Kaufman said. “I really liked the idea that even within his fantasy, he cannot have what he wants. He’s going to imagine this thing, but then he’s going to also imagine how it won’t work, how she’s going to bored with him, how she’s going to not think he’s smart enough or interesting enough.”

Eventually, Jake stops trying to solve his problems by inventing new people, and instead focuses on himself. “In keeping with the idea of giving her some agency, I didn’t want her to be responsible for his ending,” Kaufman said.

At one point, the janitor watches the final scene of a cheesy romance that’s directed by Robert Zemeckis. The abrupt end credit is hilarious. But why Zemeckis?

The janitor is often a passive character in the high school, absorbing faces and circumstances from the sidelines. However, one scene finds him sitting in an empty room, eating lunch and watching a movie on television. It’s the final minutes of a cheesy romance set in a diner, and the credits come up just long enough for one name to appear: “Directed By Robert Zemeckis.”

Why did Kaufman decide to toss in a reference to the director of “The Polar Express”? Kaufman has been telling interviewers that it happened at random, when his assistant director suggested it after perusing a list of director names online. Zemeckis wasn’t even in Kaufman’s original version of the script.

“Sometimes things are funny because they’re funny, and I feel like it’s possible that Zemeckis could have made this movie, even if it’s unlikely,” Kaufman said. At the same time, there’s a touch of irony to the choice. “I don’t think Zemeckis ever has or ever would make a movie like this,” Kaufman said. “It’s more like a Nancy Meyers movie. He wasn’t a model for it. His stuff is generally more high-concept, but it’s possible, so the joke resonates somehow.” He asked the director for permission to include the reference, and Zemeckis is thanked in the credits.

So it was just a random choice?

Yeah, that story sounds almost too neat for its own good, doesn’t it? After all, Zemeckis is one of the biggest commercial directors of the past 30 years, and Kaufman’s work is defiantly non-commercial. On top of that, Kaufman did at one point almost work with Zemeckis while adapting the young adult novel “Chaos Walking” way back in 2012. The project has gone through many writers since then, though Kaufman still has a credit on the Doug Liman-directed version set for release from Lionsgate next year. But Zemeckis was initially interested in taking it on.

“What happened with Robert Zemeckis was that I wrote a first draft of ‘Chaos Walking,’ and then I guess he read it and was interested in directing it,” Kaufman said. Lionsgate set them up. “It was a really nice meeting,” Kaufman said. “I had never met him before, but we had a really nice chat and came up with some solutions to some issues and that was the end of it. Then I didn’t end up moving forward with it, and neither did he.”

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”

Netflix

Alright, back to that cringe-inducing dinner. Why do the parents keep changing?

Over the course of a very creepy evening, Jake’s parents undergo a series of dramatic physical changes, from young to old and back again. Jake is basically living through the many stages of his parents’ lives, a process that has complicated the idea of bringing his new girlfriend home. Where does he place her in that timeline? He can’t find the perfect moment, because it doesn’t exist. As much as he wants to stay in the house with her, they eventually leave, at her insistence.

So begins another long car ride. And…was that a Pauline Kael impersonation?

While at Jake’s house, Lucy wanders into his childhood bedroom. It’s strewn with piles of movies, books, and other material. One volume stands out: “For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies,” a 1996 selection of former New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s reviews (the book, now out of print, draws from several earlier collections). Once back on the road, Lucy and Jake engage in a loooooong, meandering discussion that bursts with highbrow references, from Guy Debord’s “Society as Spectacle” to Goethe’s theory of color and a David Foster Wallace essay from the collection “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

All of these fragments point to complicated ideas related to Jake’s obsessions, but none receive more screen time than a Pauline Kael review — her 1974 takedown of John Cassavetes’ “Woman Under the Influence.” (Strangely, that review is not included in “For Keeps.”)

A Woman Under The Influence (1974)Directed by John CassavetesShown: Gena Rowlands

“A Woman Under the Influence”

Faces International / Photofest

Debating the film and its Gena Rowlands performance, Lucy basically transforms into Kael, repeating the review verbatim with a spot-on impersonation. “I’ve always liked her, and grew up with her and reading her, and thinking that she was smarter than I am,” said Kaufman, echoing the sentiment of many readers over the years. Jake seems to be one of them: After Lucy finishes her monologue about the movie, which he liked, he’s left speechless.

“That goes toward the idea of Jake not being able to have anything that he wants,” Kaufman said. “He had this opinion about that movie, and then failed. It’s an experience I’ve had — the idea that you like something, and then you read something by somebody that you really admire, and you feel like an idiot for liking that thing.” (Also notable: Kaufman’s recent novel, “Antkind,” is about the plight of a film critic.)

What’s up with Tulsey Town Ice Cream?

Eventually, the car ride is interrupted by a stop at Tusley Town Ice Cream, an invented small-town ice cream chain inexplicably open in the middle of a debilitating snowstorm. On the way over, Jesse and Lucy recall the jingle for the ice cream shop commercials. The pair stop there briefly and Lucy has a cryptic interaction with three women behind the takeout counter. Two of them are giggly and flirtatious, while a third seems terrified.

According to Kaufman, they’re all references to women that Jake has seen before. “Then there was this idea that there were many generations of high-school kids who worked there that he had interacted with over the years and had his problems with,” Kaufman said. “It’s a dreamy stop into his psyche, into his past.”

In the book, the couple actually stop at a Dairy Queen. “We weren’t able to get the rights to use that, so I changed it,” Kaufman said. “But I think it worked out better, because it’s more mysterious, and because it’s more local.”

Let’s talk about that dance sequence.

After they park at the high school, Jake runs inside, angry that the janitor is watching from afar. When Lucy goes after him, she has a warm encounter with the janitor in which he sends her on his way — suggesting that the character has finally accepted that he must part ways with his fantasy. Elaborating on this idea, Lucy and Jake then spot each other in a hallway, where they’re replaced by a pair of ballet dancers wearing the same clothes. Over the next several minutes, they engage in a lively piece of choreography patterned after a similar moment in the musical “Oklahoma!”

Earlier in the movie, the janitor passes a school recital of the play, which includes an extensive “dream ballet” sequence that finds the farm girl Laurey at the center of a brawl between two suitors, Curly McLain and Jud Fry. That sequence ends with Curly’s death; here, it’s the Jake stand-in who goes down, suggesting that Jake has accepted the impossibility of his love.

“There’s a few things in ‘Oklahoma!’ that felt like they were really kind of thematically parallel to the story that we were telling,” Kaufman said. As for the dream sequence: “I was always intrigued by it, because it’s so creepy, and I liked the idea of the doppelgänger aspect in it.” In other words, Jake has been pretending he’s someone else, and uses the narrative framework of “Oklahoma!” to eliminate that delusion.

And then there’s the talking animated pig.

Actually, that’s another pretty straightforward one. In his car, the janitor seems to have an attack of some sort, and possibly dies. Like Charles Foster Kane whispering “Rosebud” from his bed, janitor-Jake sees tidbits from his youth in the windshield, including the animated “Tulsey Town Ice Cream” ad referenced earlier. These give way to an animated pig with maggots on its stomach — a grim encounter that Jake recounts to Lucy earlier in the movie, while giving her a tour of the farm. The affable animal walks Jake back to his final moment of introspection.

Something about the innocence of the pig and its horrific underbelly traumatized Jake early in life. In his old age, he has come to terms with this fundamental imbalance in his universe.

In the last scene, everyone’s old. But it looks kind of…fake.

Onstage to accept an award in the movie’s final scene, Jake stands against a backdrop of the “Oklahoma!” set, wearing obvious stage makeup to look like an old man. But he’s not alone. It’s a packed house, and everyone in the room — including his parents and Lucy — are wearing the same makeup. Originally, Kaufman included a tidbit to explain this inclusion.

“There was a scene where the janitor found a makeup book in the bathroom as he was cleaning up, because somebody had clearly been putting their makeup on in this boys or girls room,” Kaufman said. The device allows Jake to bring everyone in his head to age along with him, while reminding us of the artifice in play. “All of the people who were in the audience, with the exception of the characters from the movie, are the extras who played high school kids in the rest of the movie,” Kaufman said. “So they’re all young people wearing old-age makeup.”

Is that…the closing speech from “A Beautiful Mind”?

Yup. When Jake accepts his prize, he recites the sentimental Nobel Prize speech delivered by economist John Nash (Russell Crowe) at the end of Ron Howard’s Oscar winner. In fact, the entire sequence has been built to resemble the conclusion of the 2001 movie.

Earlier in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” a DVD of “A Beautiful Mind” is glimpsed in Jake’s room, so it stands to reason that Jake found much relatable about the story of a brilliant man who struggles with paranoid schizophrenia and has trouble sorting out the reality surrounding him. Kaufman was wary of spelling that out, though.

“That’s one that I’m not as comfortable talking about because it does get to the meat of what the movie I made is about,” he said, but then elaborated anyway. “This movie is dealing with somebody’s experience of absorbing things that they see and how they become part of his psyche,” he said. “So this was in some ways how this person might have fantasized it out.”

Of course, there may be more to this: End credits claim that the speech was lifted with permission of the studio, but Kaufman played no role in that. Unlike Zemeckis, he didn’t ask for Howard’s blessing. “I have certainly never spoken to Ron Howard in my life,” Kaufman said. “I’m assuming they got permission.”

Considering that “A Beautiful Mind” was one of the cheesier Oscar winners of the previous decade (and it won the same year that “Adaptation” came out), it’s no huge leap to see the inclusion as a huge cinematic eyeroll about the misleading nature of storytelling that clouds the true nature of solipsistic struggles, something Kaufman has explored throughout his filmography. “A Beautiful Mind” puts a happy ending on that subject; in “I’m Thinking of Ending of Things,” the struggle never ends.

And then Jake sings…

Yep, more of “Oklahoma!” Sitting down on a set that looks like a reproduction of his childhood bedroom, he delivers a melancholic rendition of “Lonely Room,” in which Jud declares his intention of marrying Laurey. The song includes the telling line, “Get me a woman to call my own.” Dream on, Jud — and Jake, it seems. “The character of Jud seemed to be comparable in some ways to Jake,” Kaufman said. Sitting on a set built from the fragments that define his life, Jake has become the star of his own story and simultaneously confined by it.

And that’s it! Right?

Not quite. That final image of the janitor’s snow-encrusted car essentially suggests that janitor-Jake died there in the dead of night. It’s a beautiful, tragic capper to a story about one man confronting the failures of his life as it leaves his body. Kaufman hopes that people keep watching through the credits, which list many of the references throughout the movie. “There’s actually a lot of stuff in the end credits that’s important to me,” Kaufman said. “It’s an intentional thing, the way it plays out.”

Exhausted? Fine, but the riddles of the movie all serve a purpose. Ultimately, Kaufman doesn’t think that “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” hides much from its audience. “The way I was presenting it was that you would probably figure it out,” he said. “This is what the character is going through. You either get it or you don’t.”

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is now streaming on Netflix.

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