Temporal Horrors: Watching ‘i’m thinking of ending things’ on a Rainy Friday Evening

Izzie Glover 24 October 2020
Image Credit: IndieWire

i’m thinking of ending things, for the most part, made me feel horrible. Director Charlie Kaufman recommends watching it with somebody else and, crucially, not on a laptop. I do one of these things. As the glare of a neon green lamp turns my friend’s face into something that, from the corner of the eye, shines sickly and artificial, I pull away from the laptop screen and ask him if we can see how much time is left. It’s a viewing practice I disagree with, like subtitles and googling the synopsis, but my finger finds the trackpad and the bar pops up along the bottom of the screen. I blurt out that I don’t think I can endure another forty minutes of this. It is 11pm and raining miserably outside. I suggest we go for a walk.

Jake’s (Jessie Plemons) corner-of-the-mouth drawl in i’m thinking is hard to get out of your head. In the corridors and out on the grass, pauses punctuate my thoughts like uneasy line breaks in a Rupi Kaur poem; we seem incapable of speaking unless it is in disjointed, fractured sentences or long theorising monologues, like those of Lucy (Jesse Buckley) and Jake in the film. Watching i’m thinking of ending things for an hour and forty-four minutes has also ruined our perception of reality. We joke that we keep expecting to look at the statue we’re heading towards and then suddenly be at it, and, once we’re there, unsure of how we came to be without moving, that we’ll turn around and one of us won’t be there anymore, or we’ll still be together but with slightly different hair and outfits, or we’ll be different people entirely, or I’ll be being played by my mum and we’ll all have aged terribly.

At this point, what began as a potential break-up drama, with the uncapitalised title of a terrible YA novel-turned-film and an internal monologue that is three semi-tones away from the plucky opening of a nineties teen film, had turned, for me, into an interminable numbness and skin-crawling horror that I felt I was taking on alone and being drawn into against my will. In my notes, alongside several theory-affirming quotations, I had written:

“I keep hoping it will end suddenly because I want to write about it, and in writing about it, myself.”

“It had turned, for me, into an interminable numbness and skin-crawling horror that I felt I was taking on alone and being drawn into against my will.”

But what I meant to say, and I can say now in the sensible morning, no longer swayed by the film’s dizzying speech and my desire to seem as insightful and profound as Kaufman’s characters, is that I needed it to end so that I could talk about it, or write about it, and it would no longer be something I was experiencing but something that was separate from me and my life, that I could frame and try to understand. Our walk helped. My friend, an economist, always searching for answers, had his theories. I, a mere English student, took a cue from the third year ever-meta and decidedly postmodern Practical Criticism exam and told him:

​“I think it’s about thinking.”

He thought it wasn’t really about Lucy, but Jake, and it wasn’t really happening, but maybe it was memory, or fantasy –

​“Or daydreaming“, I add.

When we huddle back inside, lights on, subtitles on, separation between man and screen firmly on, it’s a lot more enjoyable. Our theories mean we watch the rest of the film searching for clues that will buoy up our new beliefs. It becomes more like a game and less like one hundred and thirty-four minutes of existential dread.

By the end, I’m sure it’s about the conversations you have with yourself. Early on, Jake turns to Lucy and says, on the subject of films:

“I fill my brain with lies to pass the time.”

He says it melodically, eyes fixed somewhere beyond the straight open road. It seems throwaway. But you learn with Kaufman that nothing is throwaway. If you could bear to watch the film again, I’m sure you would find other slight comments sticking markedly out, as you no longer accept the veil of normalcy that initially rounded their jagged edges. Jake’s little light whisper stuck with me because, I think, at least with my theory of the film, it is a pathway to understanding it. It points you to daydreams, to fantasies, to the way we create little scenarios in our heads that we run over and over, the minutiae shifting as we ourselves shift, the way our daydreams so often become corrupted with anxieties or caught up in somebody else’s story and somebody else’s voice.

“By the end, I’m sure it’s about the conversations you have with yourself.”

It makes the film make sense, if you think like I do. If you too construct faux interviews while putting on your makeup in the morning, catching Graham Norton up on whatever saga is currently plaguing you – as well as your most recent album, of course – then you’ll understand why Lucy sometimes says so little while Jake speaks at length about Emerson or Wordsworth or an all-night Dairy Queen style rest stop. She is part of the scenario that lets Jake order and organise his thoughts and unravel them at length to someone that is interested in him, that is maybe in love with him, someone that will never ignore or speak over him. i’m thinking of ending things has this niceness running through its utter discomfort because it makes you realise that other people have daydreams too. Daydreams like yours – the school crowd, the underdog, the tense, nervous seat-shifting performance that erupts in standing ovations and a point well proved – making you feel less alone. In a way. And yet, much, much more alone.

Longing and loneliness sit painfully at the heart of the film; nothing stayed with me quite so much as the poem Lucy recites near the start, one of her own, and how this poem later turns out to be from an anthology in Jake’s childhood bedroom. There is something so quietly sad about the idea of Jake, alone, reading these words aloud at just more than a hush, imagining them spoken by somebody else – a lover – and imagining hearing them as if the words were written just for him.

That being said, it is very possible that i’m thinking of ending things will mean none of these things to anyone else and maybe writing about it just serves to expose your own anxieties. If I could watch it again and try to see more sides to it I would. In truth, I can’t think back to it without feeling a little bit sick. My friend is furious because he thinks I am not selling the film enough, so I’ll leave you with his lasting thought:

​“It’s like a horror film, but not because it’s scary but because it is deeply horrifying” –

He pauses. I narrow my eyes:

“But, like. In a good way.“