While this story contains big spoilers for Charlie Kaufman’s movie “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” it might not matter. It’s a tough movie to spell out, as it’s mostly internal and unfolds inside the characters’ heads, even as their environments grow to be an extension of them. Iain Reid’s page-turning novel from 2016, which provides the template for Kaufman’s film, is equally elliptical, and shimmies between many genres at once, including philosophical horror and existential absurdity.
While Kaufman’s novel deviates widely from Reid’s novel, the basic premise remains the same: A woman named Lucy (or is it Lucia? Louisa?), played by Jessie Buckley, is on a road trip with her new boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), whose isolated farmhouse is at the other end of a hastening blizzard. At the farmhouse, Buckley’s character’s grasp on reality comes untethered as time elapses, dilates, and ultimately collapses over the course of a very awkward dinner.
Despite Kaufman’s liberties in the adaptation, Reid handed his book over to the director/writer with complete trust. When Charlie Kaufman knocks, and wants to adapt your book, know that it’s going to look very different on the side. (See his spin on Susan Orlean’s nonfiction “The Orchid Thief,” “Adaptation.”)
“It essentially touches on the same theme [but] in such a different way,” said Reid. Both the film and the movie share the same grand design: the events of the story are a fabricated, fictional universe the protagonist, a failed man preparing to “end things,” lives inside and has created as a coping mechanism In the movie, that world is built largely from the media Jake has consumed: A speech in the film’s final scene comes from the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” a long monologue from Buckley’s character about John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” is really a word-for-word Pauline Kael review, and so on.
While at the end of the novel, the protagonist ends up killing himself, and effectively killing all the personalities he’s spun inside his head, Kaufman’s film flies into a far more surreal reverie that draws everything we have hitherto seen into more troubling question, but also into not-quite-sharp focus.
Reid said he “loved” the movie’s ending. “With the ending of the book, I’ve never really thought of it as a twist ending. I didn’t write it as a psychological thriller, which is a very particular kind of book [where] some type of events lead to a resolution. That wasn’t really in my mind. I can see why some people read it that way,” he said. The novel, while blatantly marketed as a thriller, is more oozing, dizzying dread than outright horror.
Reid is loath to offer up his interpretation of the movie’s end, instead deferring to viewers and how they might read the conclusion. “I found it exhilarating to watch. I really appreciated what Charlie did. It’s ambiguous in in a different way that the book, [which] is ambiguous to a certain degree. And I’m just curious how people will interpret the end,” Reid said.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” the movie is packed with easter eggs that encourage a revisit, and its placement on Netflix will make it easier for keen viewers to pause and rewind. (Kaufman breaks down many such easter eggs in IndieWire’s recently published explainer piece.)
When asked what minute details he tuned deeper into on a second viewing, Reid, who serves as a co-producer on the movie, said, “One thing that I maybe resonated more with in general was the acting, the performances. The first time I was watching it, I was just trying to take it in. I’ve never seen, obviously, anything of mine being adapted before. It really jumped out at me the second time. It starts with these long sequences in the car, and I’m in awe of Jessie and Jesse, and when we get to the farmhouse with Toni and David, what they’re able to do is something I would have never anticipated when I was writing the novel.”
Asked what further reading or watching audiences might want to pursue if they dug the worlds of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Reid recommended “Under the Skin” by Michel Faber, which was loosely adapted into the 2013 film by Jonathan Glazer about an alien among us who sucks the souls of human men. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and “Under the Skin,” in fact, have a lot in common, both in terms of tone and in terms of being explorations of profound loneliness. “It’s a literary novel that is quite scary, and worthy of multiple readings,” Reid said of the latter.
You could say the same about both his own creation and the movie it inspired.