Charlie Kaufman’s ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ is a peculiar experience. It is the kind of movie that establishes its uniqueness simply through the elevated weirdness that at once makes you think that everything is meaningless and everything is meaningful here. You think about pulling apart every detail of every scene and every line, but for something that runs for two hours and fifteen minutes, it seems so humungous a task that you’d rather let it be, altogether. And yet, you can’t wait to know what it all really means. Here’s a gist of all things for you. SPOILERS AHEAD!
I’m Thinking of Ending Things Plot
A woman is on her way with her boyfriend, Jake, to his parents’ house. They had only met a few weeks ago and this is their first long trip together. And she is thinking of ending things. As the film progresses, we become privy to the thoughts of the unnamed woman and witness strange happenings through her perspective. Things get really weird when they get to the house and she starts to notice some startling details.
Who is the Janitor?
We follow the events of ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ from the perspective of the Girlfriend. However, just when we are introduced to her, we also meet an old man by the window. He keeps whispering something, which is repeated when the Girlfriend picks up the call. Running parallel to her and Jake’s visit to his parents’ house, we also see the story of the janitor. We wonder how he is connected to them and how his phone call works in this scenario.
Following up on the several clues left behind in the film, we reach to the conclusion that the janitor is none other than Jake, and that the whole scenario with the Girlfriend is just a figment of his (Janitor/Jake’s) imagination. Jake’s parents are long dead, he lives alone at his house, he works as a janitor, and often finds himself being mocked by the young girls at school. When he was young, he wasn’t popular or even friendly, but he was hard-working, “diligent”. However, the turn of the events kept him in his small town and he felt reduced to living the life of a nobody. And pondering over his isolation and loneliness, he starts to wonder what would have happened had he asked for the number of the girl that he once saw at a trivia night.
Who is the Girlfriend?
The fact that we never get to know her name is proof enough that the Girlfriend is an unreliable character. She is called by several variations of “Lucy” and she doesn’t mind that people keep mixing up her name. The fact that none of these names belong to her is shown by the fact that she gets a call from the people with those names but never picks it up. Jake even calls her Ames, short for Amy, at one point, and she doesn’t correct him.
Another thing that makes us wary of her shaky perspective is how she doesn’t register the crazy back-and-forth flow of time with respect to Jake’s parents. She is also everything that Jake is. From their conversations, it looks like both of them are in the same field of work. She says she is a poet, but then also doesn’t pay heed to Wordsworth. She talks about her paintings, but then it turns out that they are Jake’s paintings. And eventually, in the end, at the school, while talking to the janitor, she speaks about Jake as a person she hadn’t registered in a crowd, like a mosquito who bit her forty years ago, just a passing interaction. She also calls him a creeper and says that when he had been eying her, she wished her boyfriend was there. On top of that, she can’t describe what Jake looks like!
Considering all of this, it only makes sense that she is not Jake’s girlfriend. He never talked to her, even though he thought about it a lot. But because he was shy, he never found the courage to go up to her and talk to her. Now, in his old age, when he is utterly alone, with no friends, or family, or loved ones, he is wondering what would have happened had he really talked to her that night. He thinks about all the things that they would have agreed or disagreed on, and he thinks about their first visit to his parents’ house because in bringing home a girl, which he had never done before, his parents would have thought better of him. At least, they wouldn’t have pitied him or tried to smother him with sympathy for not being able to find someone for himself.
But none of that ever happened, so the woman that we meet at the beginning of the film is nowhere but in Jake’s imagination. As to why she is thinking of ending things, we can tie that to the janitor’s desire of ending things for himself. Because, through association, aren’t they essentially the same person? This also leads us to the moment where the Girlfriend looks at Jake’s photo and sees herself. She also recognizes the swing-set outside a decrepit house, and she also recognizes one of the girls as the ice-cream shop even though she hasn’t seen them before. This is simply because Jake knows them. He has seen them before. And because she comes from his mind, she knows them too.
The Events At the House
The events of ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ begin with a trip to Jake’s parents’ house. The moment the Girlfriend and Jake enter the house, we know that something is amiss with his parents. Despite the warmth they mean to exude towards the Girlfriend, Jake seems oddly distant from them. It appears through his demeanor that he is there to present his girlfriend to them, to show them that despite being just “diligent”, he can do better in life. But then, it is all his imagination, so the parents are a part of his imagination too.
Through the parents, one can also find Jake looking back at his life. He clearly had talents and aspirations. If the paintings and his mother are to be believed, he had a gift for art. From the details that are revealed about him and especially the way that he talks, we know that he is a physicist. And yet, in the end, we find him working as a janitor in the high school of the town that he never got out of.
In exploring the house, the girlfriend sees Jake’s parents in different ages. We see his father’s declining health and his mother dying with Jake by her bedside. Him being the only child (because there is no mention of any other sibling), we understand that when their condition worsened, it fell on Jake to take care of them. Could it be that this is what held him back from the promising life that he wished for himself? Did he come back from the city to take care of them, stayed with them until their last breaths, and then never went back?
The thread of this thought comes from the girlfriend’s repeated and relentless attempts to get out of the house and go back to the city that very night, despite the bad weather. She keeps telling Jake and his parents that she needs to go back. On the way back, when she says she wants to go home, Jake interprets it as his parent’s house. He keeps finding excuses to get her back to the house, or to stay in town at least. He stops at the ice-cream parlor in the middle of a snowstorm, just to stall, and he doesn’t even eat that ice cream. And then, under the guise of disposing of the cups, he takes her to high school, from where they never return.
In a way, this trip focuses on the captivity that Jake found himself in after staying in his obscure, desolate town. He also tries to convince himself that this was the right thing to do, as at one point, the Girlfriend mentions how old people are left alone and she sympathizes with them. This feeling also comes back to Jake in his old age when he is living alone and has no one to care for him or love him. This time around, he becomes the elderly who doesn’t receive care.
The Ice-Cream Parlour
What was with the ice-cream parlor, then, you ask? Firstly, as previously mentioned, it was just another excuse for Jake to keep the Girlfriend in town. Next, it is a place that he visits very often. At the school, when the Girlfriend makes her way inside, she finds a dumpster full of ice-cream cups. We also find the mention of this place in his conversations with the Girlfriend where he talks about how he recognizes young people, whom he had seen in school, working there, and in other places around town. It seems an odd thing for him to say, but not for a school janitor.
The two girls who make fun of him at the school, and the one girl who gives him a nod of acknowledgment rather than ridicule, works there. We also find him identifying with the loner girl through the marks on her hand. Both Jake and she have it. Jake, the janitor, identifies with the loner girl because he had been that way too. He had been shy and awkward and without friends. He felt good when people talked nicely to him, he found them kind, unlike the pretty girls who tended to be crueler to him. The two girls who laugh at him don’t acknowledge the girlfriend like they won’t even accept that he is not utterly lonely even in his imagination. They make fun of him ordering the “two sames”, and it is pretty likely that they have made fun of him about the same thing in real life too.
Just when you think that I’m Thinking of Ending Things couldn’t have been any more bizarre, the ending is thrown at you. After Jake leaves her in the car, the Girlfriend follows after him and meets the janitor. After a brief conversation with him, she searches for Jake, following which a dance routine rolls out in front of us. From here, Jake and the Girlfriend go their separate ways and we find the janitor ending up alone in his truck. He starts freezing, and then after an animated feature of the same ice cream parlor that Jake and the Girlfriend had been to, he sees a pig, who takes him back inside the school.
In the next scene, we find an older version of Jake, his mother, his father, the Girlfriend, and everyone else that he has known in his life at the Nobel prize ceremony. After giving his acceptance speech, he breaks into a song. When it ends, we see a car buried in snow outside the school.
Understanding and breaking down all of this seems overwhelming because of the sheer absurdity of it. The only thing that seems to make sense here is the fact that Jake spent all his life in the destitution of loneliness. He had plans for his life, but he never got to see them through. He wished grandiose and applause and visibility for himself, none of which he ever received in his life. He forever remained an outcast, a loner, who was never appreciated for anything. Even in his imagination, he thought about the Girlfriend who secretly wished to leave him. So, one day, he had hoped he could change all of this. One day, he thought, he would be recognized and celebrated, and then everyone, his parents, the pretty girls, the loner girl, the Girlfriend, and everyone else he has faced ridicule from or tried to make proud would acknowledge him and his talents and his greatness and would applaud him. He wished to, someday, receive the very thing he never had his entire life. To be heard, and to be seen. He couldn’t get that in real life, but he got that in his imagination.
As to what eventually happened to Jake, he died of hypothermia. It is also an interesting way to tie him to the Girlfriend who wonders about dying of hypothermia when Jake leaves her in the car. Then she makes her way into the school never to come out of it, just like the janitor goes back into the school, leaving behind his clothing, like shedding his skin and following the pig, infested with maggots, the one at back at his farm. And he never comes out of there again.
Read More: Best Charlie Kaufman Movies