You can’t fake a thought.
Rather than listen to what Lucy (Jessie Buckley) says when using the word “assertation,” Jake (Jesse Plemons) can’t help but wonder if she got that small detail wrong. He says, “I think it’s assertion” to which she replies, “Both are words. Look it up.” Or did he say “assertation” before she thought “assertion” in order for him to say, “Look it up?” Does it even matter? This is the last night they’ll ever see each other anyway if we’re to believe Lucy’s inner monologue’s wrestling with whether she should end their relationship … or maybe that’s not the correct word either. End things. That’s better. So any “who said what” is ultimately inconsequential, right? Especially once the details fade away and those things become one single thing: death.
The whole repeated phrase—and title of both Iain Reid‘s novel and writer/director Charlie Kaufman‘s film adapted from it—is actually I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Maybe it’s Lucy and Jake’s six-week union. Maybe it’s this one-day road-trip to visit his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Or maybe it has and always will be about a life’s end. That doesn’t have to mean suicide, though. To think about death isn’t necessarily to ensure its arrival. We don’t have to when death is assured for us all. So the notion of having that inevitable end on one’s mind could be as complexly simple as an existential crisis. It could be a desire to look back and reimagine a life worth preserving in the face of an uncertain future.
As we witness during the course of their mutual journey through time, identity, fantasy, and fears, however, it could also mean reimagining a forgettable life. As the snow falls outside the windows, this thought of the end might just bring with it memories of the beginning. Real or not, they have an impact. They leave a mark. So what if details like names, careers, or intentions are changed? So what if poems, critiques, and songs are put into the mouths of others to expand an insular and lonely existence to include the infinite possibilities and experiences we had in our grasp if only we found the courage to reach out? While photographs are exacting, painted interpretations of them often prove more personal—perhaps more beautiful too.
Why remember a scowl when you can recall a smile instead? Why walk through the sorrow and disappointment of people who’ve rejected you when your brain can merge them together into an amalgam that’s joined to form a happier alternate reality capable of replacing it? Call it delusion. Call it survival. Call it whatever you want. For someone who might be too socially awkward to find companionship outside of books and movies, manufacturing an ideal partner in their head might be the only thing keeping them sane. What harm is caused by a fictional dance sequence besides to the person who’s bound to wake up and realize it wasn’t real? What is real anyway? That which occurred or that which cemented in our minds? Which truly shapes us?
Is Lucy therefore real? Or is she a bit of everyone Jake has ever fantasized about holding close rolled into one? Is she a woman he can bring home to Mom and Dad or figure he wished he could? It’s not like doing so was ever going to be an easy task. Not when death looms large on the family farm both via animals succumbing to the elements or slaughter and the humans slowly losing their battle with time. Lucy would have to eventually see the skeletons in Jake’s basement. She’d see the doting mother for whose physical affection makes him recoil. She’d see the simple father becoming a shadow of his former self through dementia. And she’d see his frustrations rising due to feelings of emotional imprisonment.
If Jake is in suspended animation with disintegrating parents at home and evolving students at work, why not hold tight to a version of himself that would conversely make him proud? Not the “diligent” boy who struggled to be seen and heard in youth. Not the invisible man we infer he has or will become courtesy of an old janitor (Guy Boyd) silently going through the rote motions of a life for which he seems to no longer have control. Be the man who still has hope. Be the man who can appreciate the things life promises even if not everyone is lucky enough to find them. Be the man who declares his undying love in a romantic comedy or sweeps her off her feet during a musical.
Be that person whether or not you actually can because the future has a way of destroying them in the end. Reality has a way of weighing us down or stabbing us in the back just when the fantasy seemed ready to come true. It will get treacherous out there and that which you thought will be reevaluated if not proven wrong. That’s what happens through the passing of years. That which was written or performed on the page or tape becomes a capsule to be read or watched through a new lens. What felt as though it spoke directly to you can turn out to be completely foreign when experienced with fresh eyes a decade later. Our cellular structure is literally born anew over and over again.
Is what we see on-screen hopeful? No. But it’s not damning either. It’s nostalgic. Melancholic. Honest. When Lucy finds herself entering different rooms holding Jake’s parents in differing stages of aging, it’s not a nightmare. It’s life. When Ryan Steele and Unity Phelan are caught moving through an empty school’s hallways with passionate, soulful movements only to be interrupted by Frederick Wodin‘s villainous usurper, it’s not a horrific attack. It’s time doing its damnedest to force its target into facing facts. And yet we still don’t have to relent. Not to the depression. Not to the anguish. Not to the regret. We can put chains on our tires and conquer the snow. We can eat ice cream in the freezing cold. We can numb our pain with imagination.
That’s what Kaufman is doing here. Just as his lead character in Synecdoche, New York manufactured fictional versions of his life to manifest hindsight in real-time rather than risk failure without it, Jake is retreating into his past with an inked pen at the ready to rewrite it. As the blizzard covers one car in his parents’ driveway while he watches from above, it covers another parked somewhere else miles away as he watches from the inside. This is his life, his dreams, and his tragedies playing fast and loose with truth and desire. It’s who he is and whom he wishes to be—the latter only validated by someone else’s presence to go along for the ride. Lucy is Lucia. She’s Yvette and Amy. She bears witness.
This is a tragic yet beautiful discovery as we move through time’s whirlwind with changing faces. Buckley becomes victim to the certainty of uncertainty as she seeks to cope with letting go. Plemons becomes prey to a repressed anger getting him through what he believes is a thankless existence. But it’s not to Jake’s parents. It’s not to some of those kids he saw carry a similar burden with them into adulthood. He was caretaker the former. Mirror to the latter. He was a human with as much value as the rest, voraciously consuming art and science to forever learn more. He appreciated a jingle’s charm alongside Wordsworth’s poems. He worked and he loved—hard. And he was alive until the end whether you saw him or not.
 Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Jesse Plemons as Jake, Jessie Buckley as Young Woman in Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020
 Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Toni Collette as Mother in Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020
 Im Thinking Of Ending Things. David Thewlis as Father, Jessie Buckley as Young Woman in Im Thinking Of Ending Things. Cr. Mary Cybulski/NETFLIX © 2020