To Make Any Sense of Netflix’s ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things,’ Let’s Turn To the Original Book

Photo credit: Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX

From Cosmopolitan

Netflix’s new movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things, might have you thinking, “Uh, what?” It’s a supremely unsettling psychological horror film from the twisty mind of infamous director Charlie Kaufman. If you’ve ever seen a Kaufman film before, you know the feeling. As the man behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich, he relishes in art that stretches your concept of reality, that makes you challenge all your preconceptions and go to bed with a headache. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is no different. Except, this time, we have a road map in the form of a book, Iain Reid’s original novel.

But let’s rewind a second. To truly pick this beast apart, we’ll have to go slow. I’m Thinking of Ending Things has a deceptively simple premise: Boy meets girl. Boy takes girl to meet parents. Parents are a lil’ quirky. Boy and girl leave. But there’s something foul afoot!

Brilliant but quiet Jake (Jesse Plemons) is the somewhat recently acquired boyfriend of our unnamed protagonist (Jessie Buckley), who’s thinking of ending their relationship despite their “rare and intense attachment.” Still, she agrees to head out to his family farm and meet his parents. After much philosophical back-and-forth on their drive through the country, Jake and No Name arrive at the farm, where they tour the property, which has seen a lot of death and decay in its many years. Jake tells No Name the story of a pig that was eaten alive by maggots. Lovely!

Anyway, after that charming introduction to rural life, they encounter Jake’s mom (Toni Collette), dad (David Thewlis) and an extremely shaky dog named Jimmy. They share an uncomfortable dinner during which Mom won’t stop talking about the whispers she hears in her head due to, supposedly, tinnitus. After the lovely meal, No Name sees a picture of herself hanging on the wall. There are a bunch of scratches on the door that leads to the basement. These are red flags, girlfriend! Get out of there!!

Naturally, things only get stranger. No Name moves throughout the house and encounters different versions of Jake’s parents at different ages. She finds Jimmy’s ashes, even though he was definitely just downstairs, right?? Finally, she demands they leave. She and Jake hop back in the freezing car, drive for a while, stop for ice cream, then stop to throw away the uneaten ice cream at Jake’s old high school. If you can believe it, that’s when the crazy stuff really starts.

Reid’s book follows the same premise and a similar storyline, but Kaufman’s film vastly expands the material. In order to make sense of the movie’s ending, you’ll need to understand what the director changed from the book. Warning: lots of spoilers ahead.

The book features two unidentified witnesses who reveal what happened.

By the end of Kaufman’s film, we have some degree of understanding about what horror took place at the high school: The janitor killed himself. But whether or not you deciphered that the janitor was Jake (though much older) depends on how closely you watched the film.

In the book, this reveal is much more obvious. Throughout the novel, short chapters featuring two unnamed characters share bits of information. They are horrified by something that happened at the high school. Ah, it’s a death. It’s a death of the janitor who’s been there for years, who was always odd and quiet and kept to himself. Oh, yes, and he was brilliant, could have been a scientist. But he was so shy. So unusual. Always alone. What a shame. He must have always been thinking of ending things for years.

These conversations don’t take place in the film, making the janitor’s suicide (and true identity) far more subtle.

Photo credit: Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX

In the book, No Name has been dealing with an unidentified stalker.

You might remember from the film that Jake’s girlfriend repeatedly gets weird phone calls from an unknown man. He leaves voicemails, the exact wording of which is usually:

There’s only one question to resolve. I’m scared. I feel a little crazy. I’m not lucid. The assumptions are right. I can feel my fear growing. Now is the time for the answer. Just one question. One question to answer.

Somehow, though unnerved, No Name manages to mostly ignore these messages as they happen throughout the film. But in the book, she has even more reason to fear: She’s been stalked before. More than once, she’s seen a tall stranger stand outside her window and stare at her while she sleeps. He disappears before she decides to do anything. However, she knows the mystery voicemails must come from this man, whom she refers to as the Caller.

In the movie, we actually see this Caller almost immediately. We watch him stand at a window and stare at No Name as he whispers, “There’s only one question…” At first, he appears as an old man. In a frame only moments later, though, he looks much younger. He looks, huh…oddly like Jake?

Jake supposedly has a brother in the novel.

In one of the scenes of the novel, No Name explores the family farm and finds a photo featuring Jake, his ex-girlfriend, and another man. Jake mentions the man must be his brother.

He explains, “A few years ago, my brother developed some problems….He’d always been extremely solitary. Couldn’t relate to others. We thought he was depressed. Then he started following me around. He didn’t do anything dangerous, but it was odd, the following…I kind of had to cut him out of my life, block him out. It’s not like he couldn’t take care of himself. He can. I don’t believe he’s seriously mentally ill…I believe he’s a genius and he’s deeply unhappy. It’s hard to spend that much time alone. It’s hard not to have anyone.”

Reading this, we’re led to believe Jake’s brother must become the janitor whom the two witnesses discuss after his suicide—the one who’s brilliant but troubled. This brother is never mentioned in the movie, perhaps because by the end the truth is ob
vious: There is no brother. He doesn’t exist.

Photo credit: Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX

The sequence of events after Jake and No Name leave the farm differs from book to movie.

In Reid’s novel, Jake and No Name depart the farm and drive to a regular ‘ole Dairy Queen to grab something sweet for the drive home. In the film, they travel to the far creepier Tulsey Town, which has its own maniacal jingle guaranteed to give you nightmares.

But things only get much weirder from there. Yes, in both the book and film Jake decides to drive to his local high school so he can toss out the uneaten desserts. And in both versions, he ends up plunging inside, furious, when he claims to have seen a man watching him and No Name when they start kissing in the car. And, yes, in both versions, No Name eventually follows him into the haunted high school.

But in the book, she never encounters Jake again. She never encounters anyone. She descends slowly into a sort of madness, finding notes written for her, until she stops referring to herself as “I” and changes the pronoun to “we.” That’s the reader’s first hint.

In the film, Kaufman takes much more time to feed audiences this conclusion. No Name wanders the high school looking for Jake and encounters the janitor, who asks what her boyfriend looks like. She seems unable to answer the question. “It was so long ago I barely remember,” she says. “We never even talked, is the truth. I’m not even sure I registered him…He was a creeper! You know?”

See, supposedly Jake asked No Name out after they met at a trivia night together, where they exchanged playful banter and eventually a cell phone number. But No Name reveals that never happened. It’s a lie. A fiction. He simply stared at her that night, and she left.

The non-interaction means nothing to her, but clearly it means everything to the janitor. Why? Because the janitor is a grown-up Jake. Jake wanted to love her, but he couldn’t drum up the courage to talk to her.

There in the high school, No Name rants about the frustration of being female, of being stared at and wanted so constantly by men. The janitor stares at her, flabbergasted and sad. He offers her his slippers. If you’re watching closely, you’ll notice they’re the same slippers Jake offered her earlier in the film. “They’re yours,” she says. This cements the audience’s suspicion: The janitor is Jake. And No Name is…well, we’re not sure yet.

The book’s ending is much clearer, though no less horrifying.

Believe it or not, in the film things get even weirder! No Name says goodbye to the janitor. Then she finally encounters Jake, and together they watch a ballet sequence between two performers dressed in their clothing. (It’s a lovely dance, btw!!!) They seem very happy together—they even get married!—until a dancer dressed in janitorial digs arrives and rips them apart. He kidnaps No Name and kills Jake.

The real, non-dancer janitor reappears and wipes up the bloody mess. He dresses himself to leave for the night, then trudges out to his car. He seems suddenly upset. He has a flashback of Jake’s parents arguing. Agitated, he starts to have tinnitus. He rips off his clothing until he’s naked in the car.

Photo credit: Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020
Photo credit: Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020

Still on board? Sure, let’s keep going!

Mr. Janitor then hallucinates, seeing a cartoon pig outside his car window. (The pig is the same one that was eaten alive by maggots on the farm, in case you were wondering.) Said pig leads the naked janitor back inside the high school and gives him a philosophical diatribe about how they’re both pigs, but also they’re the same, and all ideas are really one idea if you examine them closely. Makes sense!

Then we see Jake (as Jesse Plemons) again. He’s old. He’s won a Nobel Peace Prize. He thanks his love, No Name. “It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found,” he says. He then breaks out into song—and sings quite well, I might add—about being lonely and dreaming of a girl. Everyone claps. The scene cuts back to the janitor’s car, which is now buried in snow. We’re to presume he’s dead, perhaps frozen alive. The credits roll.

That’s the end. Why is all of this hallucination and musical theater necessary? I’m going to be completely honest with you: I have no idea. I think the answer is, it’s Charlie Kaufman! He can do whatever he wants!

Literally none of this happens in the book. Instead, No Name descends into madness until she reveals herself as a “we.” She is Jake. Jake is the janitor. They are all one and the same. Jake never talked to the girl at the trivia night. Instead, desperate, he created her as a figment of his imagination. Despite his brilliance, he grew into an old and lonely man, working as a janitor at the local high school. He kept her alive in his memory. And then, discovering that he has no one and never will, he asks himself THE question, the one he suggested to No Name as the Caller: What are you waiting for? And he kills himself.

It’s horrifying and sad, and readers still have hundreds of theories as to what all of it means. But one thing is for sure: I’m Thinking of Ending Things is much more than a mind boggling tale. It’s a condemnation of separation, of distance and loneliness. And at a time when we’re all forced to be separate from one another for fear of spreading a life-threatening disease, it couldn’t feel more prescient—or more unsettling.

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