There’s a running situation (it can’t really be called a “gag”) in his 2008 film Synechdoche, New York that encapsulates the feeling present throughout Charlie Kaufman’s latest, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, adapted quite faithfully from the novel by Iain Reid. In the former film, one of the main character’s love interests drives past a house that is for sale and on a whim heads inside to look at it. The house is on fire—literally flaming, with smoke curling up out of holes in the wall—the realtor and the woman both remark on it. She buys the house anyway, and the narrative just continues, occasionally returning to her house as decades pass. With each visit, the smoke is thicker, the flames higher, until she dies of smoke inhalation.
The point I picked up from this is that she has a problem with running toward situations that are obviously dangerous and self-destructive and stupid. But that’s me. It’s metaphorical in a way that resists easy interpretation, and you’re supposed to get from it what you yourself get from it. It is how an addled theater director whose life is crumbling would interpret it on a stage, leaving that last crucial bit of epiphany to the audience.
I was sure I’m Thinking of Ending Things had to have been hammered into a different shape to fit director Charlie Kaufman’s peculiarities since he is not, as a general rule, a guy whose narratives fit neatly into the conceptions of others. As it turns out, Reid’s novel so perfectly expresses Kaufman’s obsessions that he ends up needing to change very little. Dissociation and alienation are evident themes right from the jump, and even Kaufman’s teardown of the ending may do a better job of conveying Reid’s central idea than Reid’s own book does. Kaufman is a director who seems to delight in surreal, liminal spaces, and Reid’s book (spoiler alert) takes place in nothing but.
Jake knew we were going to end it. Somehow he knew. We never told him. We were only thinking about it. But he knew.
An unnamed (really a many-named) young woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend of the moment, Jake (Jesse Plemons), are driving up to meet his parents for dinner on a secluded old farmstead in the midst of a winter storm. She is thinking of breaking it off with Jake but can’t bring herself to do it for myriad reasons: It requires effort, maybe it’s a mistake to write him off, maybe she should settle, maybe she’ll miss out on whatever goodness he could bring to her life. She doesn’t not like him, she just doesn’t love him, and now she’s worried that her coming to his parents’ house will send the wrong message to him. But what else can she do but say, “yes?”
Over the course of the book and the film, the woman tells us about how the two met and why she is thinking of ending things, interspersed between scenes of her navigating an extremely awkward evening with Jake and his parents (played in various stages of decrepitude by Toni Collette and David Thewlis). All the while, she is being called by some strange man who leaves cryptic messages on her voicemail, seemingly calling from her own number. (The woman is unnamed in the book, but the movie somewhat confusingly keeps giving her a different name for reasons that will become clear—this isn’t very well explained in scenes when she’s answering her phone and there’s a different name on the caller ID each time.)
Both book and film end roughly the same way, and in both cases we feel the dread of it coming long before it arrives: The woman does not really exist. Jake is fabricating her as part of an elaborate coping mechanism for a life of missed opportunities, isolation and alienation. We are joining him as this elaborate fabrication proceeds to its logical endpoint, where he can’t escape his own belief that he inevitably drives potential lovers away. And so the fiction unravels and he ends things.
How film and book arrive at that same conclusion in different ways makes I’m Thinking of Ending Things, film and book, one of the most interesting adaptations I can think of in years.
Kaufman’s film is a tense viewing experience if you aren’t aware of what it’s about going into it. It codes more as horror than anything else, filled with awkward silences and set in the oppressive gloom of a car’s headlights and the sickly lighting of a rickety old farmhouse for the majority of its runtime. Things are off and wrong. When the couple arrive at the farmhouse, Jake’s first act is to take his girlfriend on a tour of the barn, where a stack of dead lambs lie frozen and the pig pen is empty, he reveals, because they killed the pigs when they discovered maggots were eating them alive.
After the awkward dinner mercifully ends, she starts poking around Jake’s house, and Kaufman departs from the novel in the most interesting way. Time itself becomes unmoored and each time Jake’s girlfriend bumps into one of his parents, they are at a different stage in their lives. Jake remains the same, doting on them and resenting them by turns. The dog is either dead or appears randomly just to shake itself off endlessly. Something is in the basement, but we don’t go down there.
Interspersed with these sinister and surreal turns are intrusive bits where the pop culture the real Jake (Guy Boyd), the one who lives in a world outside his own head in which he is a janitor at his own high school, are intruding into his fantasy. At times, Buckley’s character starts spouting monologues in the voice of movie reviewers (literally a word-for-word review from Pauline Kael, evidently) or in one scene suddenly becoming a completely different actress out of a sappy rom-com Old Jake has watched. These bizarre non sequiturs clue us in to the eventual ending as Jake inexplicably takes his girlfriend to his old high school. When she enters, reality fully collapses in on itself, giving way to fanciful interpretations of Jake’s former glories before the final curtain falls.
Reid’s novel, by contrast, does not play with time, nor does it imply pop culture is somehow encroaching on Jake’s reality, but the main beats of the story all remain the same, and Kaufman even pulls Buckley’s character’s monologues directly from the book’s narration. (One trick as brilliant as it is stressful is that Plemons acts as if he can hear Buckley’s internal monologue the entire time, just one more hint at the big reveal that screams so loudly it can’t really be called anything so meek as a “hint.”)
Reid’s novel likewise ends at the school, only it takes a strange turn into slasher horror, as the fictional girlfriend is locked in with a janitor who seems intent on terrorizing and killing her (and who, we know by now, is actually Jake). Eventually that thread unravels and the narrator ceases to be the girlfriend and starts to be Jake admitting that the two never went out, because he never slipped her his number and he’s been inventing everything about her, including her eventual, inevitable break-up with him. It feels somewhat out of place in the context of the rest of the book, where things are unsettling but not fight-or-flight scary, and excising it completely in favor of something more metaphorical is probably the best departure from the novel Kaufman made.
It certainly better conveys the tragedy of the story, even if the book was more literal about it. The very first line already tells us how doomed Jake has already admitted he is, as the very first line of the book and the film are the title call: “I’m thinking of ending things.” It’s about a man who has come to the inescapable conclusion he’s beyond saving.
Confession time: I don’t like Kaufman movies, and my eyes were rolling like an Olympic gymnastics routine as Jake’s girlfriend (who doesn’t have a god damned name and can only be referred to as such) lost more and more of her agency and self-definition as the story unfolded, only to discover that the film is actually about one pathetic guy’s stupid and unrealistic and unfair interpretation of all the women in his life and we’ve actually been watching him fall into the line of thinking where he realizes they may have had a point about him all this time.
It’s a brilliant enough subversion that I don’t resent the story that preceded it, which is just amazing.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.