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The Ending of ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Explained

“And I set by myself, like a cobweb on a shelf, by myself in a lonely room.” – Jud Fry
Thinking of Ending Things Ending
By  · Published on September 4th, 2020

Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This entry journeys into the ending of I’m Thinking of Ending Things and its musical connection.

The Netflix Original I’m Thinking of Ending Things is, despite being based on a novel by Iain Reid, an existential road movie that only could be the work of Charlie Kaufman. The setup of a couple who’ve been dating six or seven weeks embarking on a little road trip seems simple enough, but it is anything but. The further into the blizzard they travel, the more bizarre the journey becomes.

The literal story on-screen involves an unnamed young woman — she is literally credited as “Young Woman” (played by Jessie Buckley) — who agrees to a short trip with her boyfriend, Jake (Jesse Plemons), to meet his parents at their family farm. The snowfall rages on around them as they slowly drive in the middle of nowhere. “I’m thinking of ending things,” she repeats over and over again to herself, as she contemplates the doomed relationship.

It’s not just the narrator who sees the lack of chemistry between herself and Jake. Road trips force conversation; and their attempt at discussion is contrived and awkward. Jake asks her if she would like to listen to some music and turns on the radio. A woman’s singing voice and passé music can be heard through the car speakers. The Young Woman laughs and Jake looks at her. “It’s an odd song out here in the middle of nothing,” she says.

The tune is “Many a New Day,” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, and it’s the first major clue to understanding the film. Jake reveals to his girlfriend that he likes musicals, but Oklahoma! is the one he knows best because “they do it every few years.” When the Young Woman inquires whom he is talking about, Jake continues to ramble on.

The movie cuts to an older man (Guy Boyd), who is quietly sweeping a high school auditorium while students on stage rehearse the same song that is heard by the couple in the car. The janitor looks on until the student playing the female lead, Laurey, notices his gaze. A slight tinge of disgust stretches across her face as she continues singing.

Many a new face will please my eye,
Many a new love will find me.
Never have I once looked back to sigh,
Over the romance behind me.

Back in the car, the couple listens for a second before discussing the lyrics, which are overly optimistic (in the song, Laurey is claiming to not care about her true love, Curly, leaving open a chance for another beau, who turns out to be the loner, Jud Fry). Following the lyrics provides a guide for how the musical’s characters perceive life, which contrasts with the Young Woman’s current thoughts. “That’s why I like road trips,” he says. “It’s good to remind yourself the world’s larger than the inside of your own head.”

A little more driving leads the small sedan to the house. Before going inside, Jake insists on taking his girlfriend to the barn where he shows her some frozen dead lambs and the aftermath of some pigs that were eaten alive by maggots. Romantic date, if you ask me.

Finally, they go inside. Jake puts on a record as they wait for his parents to come downstairs. The music inspires the movie to cut back to the janitor who is walking through the halls of the school with his cart, past a long row of lockers, before coming upon two students who are rehearsing a dance duet. The costumes include a cowboy hat and a prairie dress, indicating the same production of Oklahoma! as before. The moment is shadowed with longing for human connection from a man who has been shunned by a majority of the humans around him.

Many a new face will please my eye. 

As if the tension inside this cinematic universe wasn’t as thick as a good buttercream icing, everything becomes more outlandish the moment Jake’s parents appear on screen. His mother (Toni Collette) is loud and overly doting towards her son, and his father (David Thewlis) enjoys hinting that he was once good at athletics, unlike his offspring. As the chaos heightens during dinner, Jake’s mood becomes more hostile to the other three characters. At one point, he becomes so irate that he slams his fists on the table. The lack of unity within Jake’s family is obvious, with the frustrated son being the misunderstood outcast.

Many a new love will find me.

Jake’s attitude isn’t the only detail that is inconsistent. The young girl’s outfit changes as constantly as her profession or her name. Is she Lucy or Louisa or Amy? Is she a painter, a poet, a physicist? And what about Jake’s parents?

After dessert, the Young Woman walks up the stairs to find Jake and instead finds his childhood bedroom. Inside, she notices an urn with a picture of a dog, Jimmy, the one she just saw downstairs. The camera follows her gaze as she turns to the corner where stacks of books, videotapes, and DVDs include a light green edition of Wordsworth’s work, the film review collection For Keeps by Pauline Kael, and several self-labeled items that include “Unforgettable Mishaps” and “Last/Abandoned Friendships.”

Never have I once looked back to sigh,

The exploration inside Jake’s childhood room is soon interrupted by his father, who is older than before and struggling with dementia. Downstairs, Jake’s mother can barely sit up due to her old age and is now in need of spoon-feeding. Then, the next time she appears, she is young and complaining about Baby Jake’s toys being left all over the place. The non-linear use of time and age is jarring, and the Young Woman is just as confused as those of us who made it this far into the movie. “I don’t even know who I am in this whole thing anymore,” she says to herself.

Over the romance behind me.

Behind the scratched up door that leads to the basement is another important piece to understanding how all of this mess fits together. The young woman walks down the stairs and looks inside the washing machine to find multiple pieces of work clothing, all marked with a logo. This is the same logo seen on the uniform of the unexplained janitor who’s been appearing in intercut moments. Suddenly it’s clear: the main events are all a part of Jake’s psyche.

The farmhouse does not exist, and the Young Woman doesn’t exist either, at least not in the realm of physical reality. What has been experienced so far is a catalog of Jake’s pain, traumas, knowledge, inspirations, and memories. Ultimately, it is a reflection of his forced reclusion and the inability for anyone around him to embrace his individuality.

The Young Woman is made up of parts from several past and probably failed relationships or romantic interactions that are glued together with what Jake perceives a perfect partner to be. This explains why neither her name nor her occupation is consistent and why she is made up of poetry, Pauline Kael’s movie reviews, and facts that he enjoys along with the qualities he lacks. Her outsider perspective shows Jake’s own self-consciousness, insecurity, and inability to find success in any friendship or relationship with another human being. He is the stereotypical loser. She is a musical, a spectacular performance of gleeful show tunes and choreography in his mind.

As if the story up until the final moments isn’t enough of a surrealist maze, the last twenty minutes are hypnagogic. Dancers dressed exactly like the young couple dances a slow, poetic ballet around the high school, really bringing home that Oklahoma! thread that Kaufman has stitched throughout. In the musical, dream versions of the main characters, Curly and Laurey, appear and dance a spectacular ballet sequence. The artistic rendition includes a wedding that is interrupted by Jud Fry, the outcast who is in love with Laurey. The same beats happen in this ballet interpretation, but Jake, the lonely janitor, is the outcast who comes in after the bride and groom say “I do.”

Oklahoma! is again referenced in the final scene. Young Jake in full old age stage makeup appears in front of a full auditorium as he accepts an award. The set around him on the stage — a field of corn and a windmill, surrounded by a white picket fence and a farmhouse — looks ready for the very musical to start at any moment.

As Jake looks out into the crowd of people, who are also made up in old age stage makeup, he states, “I’m only here tonight because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons.” While the camera seems to focus on a figure who appears like the Young Woman from the road trip, the other familiar faces in the audience stand-in for other aspects that have molded Jake throughout his life.

A prop set that is recognized as a rendition of Jake’s childhood bedroom from earlier is rolled out onto the stage. And then, he sings. Of course, Jake doesn’t just sing any song. He sings “Lonely Room,” the solo number that Jud Fry sings in the stage version of Oklahoma! (if you’ve only seen the movie version, you might not be familiar with it) about how he’s going to make Laurey his girl.

Met with a standing ovation, Jake sobs. He has completed his performance.

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Shea Vassar is a ᏣᎳᎩ film nerd & huge fan of coffee, cats, and the OKC Thunder.