[NOTE: This review contains spoilers.]
Charlie Kaufman’s 2020 film, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” begins with a woman considering breaking up with her boyfriend, Jake — in other words, ending things. Unfortunately for her, she’s about to embark on a long road trip with him to visit his family on a snowy day. Even worse, she’s in a Charlie Kaufman film, so nothing is as it seems.
After getting into the car, the girlfriend, whom we’ll call Lucy, narrates those loaded words — “I’m thinking of ending things.”
“Did you say something?” asks Jake, as if he heard her.
“No, I don’t think so,” she responds.
The eerie exchange is one of many in the film. Again and again, we see the workings of the mind transposed into real actions on screen: as above, thoughts are materialized into telepathic dialogue; a dog appears only after he is mentioned in conversation; the camera pans ahead to an empty room before the characters enter. In true Kaufman style, the distinction between mind and matter becomes only more and more ambiguous as the film continues.
The car ride is uncomfortable and a little odd, like any long drive would be with two people in an ending relationship. But once the couple arrives at Jake’s family house, the atmosphere becomes downright strange. Immediately, we are offered classic signals of horror tropes: a window swinging open; a taped-up basement door covered in scratches; an old barn with dead, rotting animals. The uncomfortable dialogue between the family is almost unbearable, but no frightening attacker materializes and the couple emerges from the house physically unscathed.
Instead, Kaufman effectively employs the uncanny — the familiar in the unfamiliar — to create a sense of psychological terror. These moments begin at first as subtle continuity errors. Lucy’s clothes are cozy and warm, but they keep changing slightly in between shots, along with her jewelry and hairstyle. (At one point, she’s even played by another actress.) Lucy’s interests change as well. At different points, she’s a poet, a physicist, a student of gerontology, a film critic, a painter. Even her name changes, from Lucy to Louisa to Lucia. After dinner, Lucy sees a picture of Jake as a child but thinks it’s a picture of herself. She enters his childhood room and finds it filled with books that have composed her identity. She braves the basement to find it filled with the very same paintings she believed she had done herself. We come to realize that Lucy is not a real person in our understanding of the word, but an amalgamation of Jake’s interests.
Unhappy viewers of the film — the boys that I have made watch it with me and various men online — were disappointed that it wasn’t that scary. And true, there are no jump scares or violent attacks. And also true, the constant build-up of tension through the looming snow, yearning soundtrack, and uneasy dialogue never really finds a release. The closest the film comes to a climax is through the ending’s dream sequence, which reveals Jake’s true identity and the second, final meaning of the title, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” His girlfriend, meanwhile, fades away into the world of his dream.
But like in any Kaufman film, it’s foolish to distinguish between real and not real in absolutes. Lucy, despite her purgatorial state of [spoiler] existing only in Jake’s mind, still remains a character with agency, and the story is ultimately hers. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” then, describes her horror — the horror of many women in a relationship — of being subsumed by a partner, to have the lines blurred between self and other, to exist for him, to have her interests determined by his interests, her personality governed by his personality, her very being decided by his. That is true horror.