Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a claustrophobic film. Adapted from Iain Reid’s horror novel of the same name, much of it takes place in the front seat of a small car in the midst of a cross-country road trip as a horizon of nothing but flat, monochrome frontier rolls by out the windows. The passengers—an unnamed woman and her boyfriend, Jake, with whom she’s considering ending things—seem hemmed in by each other, their conversation dissipating once they approach the boundaries of what they can’t say or know the other can’t stand to hear.
The couple is driving to visit Jake’s parents at a remote farmhouse, their first long trip together. Things seem strange from the moment they arrive. Instead of going inside, Jake shows his girlfriend the barn, where the frozen bodies of two lambs are stowed in the doorway, and tells her a particularly gruesome story about how a different pair of farm animals died. During dinner, Jake’s parents veer between mania and quiet menace, both of which reach their highest pitch when the young woman recounts how she and Jake met at a bar trivia night.
After dinner the house empties, and the young woman wanders around preparing to leave before it gets too late. But as she moves through the house, she encounters Jake’s parents at different ages. His father is now white-haired and stooped, standing in Jake’s childhood bedroom; his mother is seen in a 1950s housedress, cleaning up his toys. In another scene she is much older, being fed a paste that resembles mashed peas. Her body lies still on a hospital bed when the couple finally departs as Jake insists, unconvincingly, that she is only sleeping.
On the drive home, the memory of the night seems to slip away. The couple makes a brief stop at a Dairy Queen–like chain, and Jake, against his girlfriend’s protests, turns down a long, narrow country road to his former high school, where he throws away their ice cream cups. There, an incomprehensible rage overtakes him, and he runs into the school, car keys in hand, leaving the young woman behind. When she ventures into the half-lit building, the story begins to splinter: She has never dated Jake at all; he was staring at her one night in a bar, but she barely remembers his face. Dancers dressed to resemble the pair replace them and perform a riff on the dream ballet from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! The ballet outlines her marriage to Jake before a third dancer dressed as a janitor appears and symbolically murders him. Jake’s doppelgänger tosses silky red scarves from his jacket to mimic blood before collapsing.
Kaufman’s characteristically dense, contradictory plot translates well, to a certain point, to the horror genre: a woman who keeps seeing things she is not sure she is seeing who then ends up trapped in a high school late at night with a man she doesn’t know is obsessed with her, and all sorts of supernatural forces are afoot. Horror conventions would finish the film by revealing a nefarious plot or, barring that, some terrible, conclusive act of violence. (Reid’s novel closes with both.) But Kaufman is more interested in maintaining the confused claustrophobia to the end. Other than the red scarves, there is no final act of bloodshed. He leaves us instead with a surreal coda, casting the film as a collection of fragmentary stories, some of which contradict or influence one another or overlap or are lifted from other places.
In an earlier scene in the car, the young woman recites a poem and says she hopes it expresses “some universality in the specific.” One imagines this might be Kaufman’s goal too, even if I’m Thinking of Ending Things never fully manages to transcend its specificity and become something more universally understandable. After its dreamlike opening, it remains a story about an isolated man dangerously fixated on his loneliness. We never escape Kaufman’s insular focus; rather than create something universal, he leaves us trapped by the protagonist’s inability to understand the inner life of others.
Like Kaufman’s other films, I’m Thinking of Ending Things aims less for verisimilitude than an assemblage of metacommentary and self-awareness. As in Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York, his characters chase fictionalized versions of themselves, seeking an illusory sense of existential peace by reenacting the past. Jake and the woman resemble, more than anything, movie characters vaguely conscious of their confinement in a Charlie Kaufman horror movie. Details about her life seem perfunctory. She is, at different moments, studying microbiology, film, quantum physics, or gerontology; she is a poet, a landscape painter, or a waitress; other characters call her Lucy, Louisa, Lucia, or Ames.
The film lifts blocks of text from other media, as if Kaufman’s reading list leaked into the script. Feeling estranged from Jake, the woman recites a poem about an unhappy homecoming by the Canadian poet Eva H.D.; she needles him by rattling off lines from Pauline Kael’s acerbic 1974 review of John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. A tense dinner table scene is interrupted by a series of scenes of a fictional rom-com attributed to Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis. Jake communicates his love for the young woman through a speech about “the mysterious equations of love” taken from the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, then performs a rendition of “Lonely Room,” a tune from Oklahoma! sung by loner farmhand Jud Fry.
As icons of over-the-top performances of gendered loneliness, Jud and the warm, fragile protagonist of A Woman Under the Influence, Mabel Longhetti, are useful citations for thinking about the film’s central couple. Mabel, who has a husband and children, traditional signifiers of female fulfillment, is almost hyperbolically neglected by a family that treats her more as an aggregation of emotional services than a person. In I’m Thinking of Ending Things, at Jake’s family home the young woman walks down an interminable set of stairs and muses in voiceover, “I’m a pinball. My emotional state is bouncing all over the place…. [Jake] needs to be seen, and he needs to be seen with approval. Like that’s my purpose in all this, in life. To approve of Jake, to keep him going.” One could imagine a millennial Mabel expressing something similar, stretched thin and eventually driven insane by the imperative to tend to those around her.
Likewise, Jud is a 1940s musical theater version of the character now known as an incel—scruffy, shunned, bested by a rival suitor with classically good bone structure, driven to rage or violence by his inability to win the girl he wants. In “Lonely Room,” he resolves to stop dreaming about his love interest and start pursuing her, an ill-fated quest that leads to an attempted murder and Jud’s death. In the coda of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, when Jake sings Jud’s solo, the outcome is different. Jake performs “Lonely Room” after accepting an award onstage in front of a full house, dressed in a tuxedo and amateurish old-age makeup. When the song ends, the woman—seated house center—rises to her feet and applauds, accepting the song, with its violent subtext, as a display of his devotion to her.
Much more frightening things happen in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, but I found this moment—in which Jake, with his performance, credits the woman with his rescue from loneliness and she warmly accepts the gesture—to be its most sinister. Implicitly in Kaufman’s film and explicitly in Reid’s novel, the surreal events of the trip are the product of a fantasy that an aged Jake (who, it turns out, is one and the same as the high school janitor) creates to fill an empty life. The woman, the version of Jake she is dating, and his parents aren’t real. Reid describes the woman’s consciousness as it melts away, futilely grasping at fragments of her mind as it dissipates and the janitor abandons his story and resolves to commit suicide. “I’ve made the decision. There’s no other way,” he writes, tracing his choice to the night he was unable to introduce himself to the real woman who inspired the character: “Maybe if I’d been able to call her. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened like this.”
Kaufman ends his movie differently, with Jake’s song, perhaps hoping to transform the novel’s clumsy final note on the havoc wreaked by female rejection into something more poignant. The film’s conclusion instead attempts to locate the horror of I’m Thinking of Ending Things in the estrangement that people feel together, the cruelty that comes when patterns in a relationship harden into forms of restriction. But even here Kaufman misses an integral part of this story. He is so focused on Jake’s loneliness, he does not give us a sense of the young woman’s. She is an apparatus, there to observe and react to Jake’s past and future. She is, in essence, his lonely mind studying itself.
Therein lies the trouble with the film. While it produces, with its inventive writing and performances, the lingering sense of metaphysical disturbance that the horror genre aspires to, those formal accomplishments are undermined by what the movie lacks: an understanding of gender, the horror trope of female rejection as an incitement to violence, and the narrative baggage these characters bring with them. Although the early scenes establish the young woman’s disengagement from the relationship as the mystery that will drive the film, it’s a red herring. We don’t learn much more about it—or her. The film instead makes us sleuths in the detritus of Jake’s psyche. We become, along with the young woman, students of his loneliness.
Loneliness is both a personal and a social phenomenon; how much need, honesty, and unpredictability we are prepared to accept in others is a shifting historical standard. Perhaps the moment will come when malignant male loners can support a story that feels more generally relevant, but that moment does not feel close at hand. There’s no shock or insight in better understanding this character. There’s no fresh terror that comes from looking inside; the horror is that he’s everywhere.