‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ and the Choreography of the Mind

"You, me, ideas -- we're all the same thing."
Thinking of Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things begins with a tour of the interior, a cruise through the mind. The camera drifts slowly across richly colored wallpapers, tracing grooves like telltale wrinkles in the brain, each intricate pattern somehow dissolving cleanly into the next. The wallpaper decorates a home, not a house. It’s too distinct, too lived-in to just be a house. We descend the stairs to find windows that are too blown out to see outside of, as if in a dream. There are no people, just the mind and the voice of Lucy (Jessie Buckley) speaking for it.

Her cracked, concerned undertone narrates at a nimble pace, first explaining that she’s thinking of ending things between her and her boyfriend, Jake (a sweet, smart, and slightly creepy Jesse Plemons), then questioning the origin of the idea and her agency in producing it. As she continues to reveal her thoughts, the camera continues its survey of the home. Lucy describes a road and a conversation, and not long after, we’re immersed in both. She fills us in: “I’m visiting Jake’s parents for the first time, or I will be when we arrive.”

The constant motion, smooth editing, perpetual inner dialogue, and ever-evolving score of the first few minutes clue us to the fact that there’s something wonky about reality. Like in an Alain Resnais or Chris Marker film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things doesn’t play by the metaphysical rules. Rather, it seems as if we’re caught in an aural and visual synthesis of Lucy’s mind where the ordered chaos of the brain plays like a lonesome, expertly choreographed preternatural trip.

With a familiar dosage of existential dread complimented by an uncharacteristically hopeful bent, Kaufman examines our isolated existence, as he does so well, through the choreography of the mind, in which time and space are aloof and reality is always morphing. By diving into the mind instead of an explicit narrative, he turns the human psyche inside out, creating a distinct angle for us to consider ourselves and the human condition – what it means to be alive, alone, in love, and knowingly hurtling towards death. As Jake says, “Sometimes the thought is closer to the truth, to reality, than an action.”

The mind churns at a manic pace, one that is understandably difficult to express. But translating mental gymnastics to the screen is Kaufman’s area of expertise. He captures the dynamic nature of thought through physical and intellectual movement: deft camerawork and editing, esoteric rumination, graceful dancing, show tune singing, and, most prominently, driving. As a result, the film is often and intentionally difficult to follow, but it always gives off an alluring glow of mystery, like a singular poem whose alien syntax is such that you feel you’re reading a different language yet somehow absorbing wisdom from it (e.g. “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, or, as Lucy would have it, an Eva H.D. poem).

In the choreography of the mind, everything changes without warning: hair color, outfit, name, age, opinion, interior design, romance mythology, childhood photos, the painter of a painting, Lucy’s supposed profession, et al. The changes aren’t usually acknowledged — you’ll likely miss many on the first watch. They aren’t necessarily linear either. Things just change, as they do in the mind, for various reasons or no reason at all. It’s peculiar, but it makes sense. Consider the details you lose track of in your memory. What color was her sweater? What was her job again? How did they say they met? Were those her paintings, or are they impressions of others? Sometimes recalling specifics feels more like attempting “to remember a mosquito that bit [you] four years ago,” as Lucy so aptly puts it.

When Jake’s voice goes mute and the camera zooms in on his lips, we know Lucy is more focused on the saliva bunching up at the corners of his mouth than whatever he’s mumbling. When a staircase becomes eternal — Lucy exiting the bottom of the frame down the steps only to reappear at the top of the screen to descend the steps again like clockwork — during some emotional voiceover, we can imagine why from the perspective of the mind’s eye. Do you differentiate between the identical sets of steps in a deep stairwell? Or are you thinking about something else? Like taking a walk, descending steps is a mechanical act that allows one to let go of their physical reality (body, space) and roam the brain.

But while everything in this reality is representational, those are changes with clearer potential explanations. Most changes are nebulous, ripe for interpretation. When Lucy and Jake finally arrive at Jake’s family farm, his mother and father (a fraught, frighteningly bizarre Toni Collette and David Thewlis) age and de-age from room to room as rapidly as Dave in the final act of 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, they don’t simply grow older. In one moment, Jake is feeding his dying mother, and in the next, she’s collecting laundry around the house with the youthful zeal of a housewife in a 1950s detergent ad.

The mind projects fear, so maybe the age changes represent Jake’s fear of his parents dying? But whose mind are we seeing through? Lucy’s or Jake’s? Or both? Are they even different? After all, “everything is everything.” If we’re still in hers, maybe she knows his fears and the mind paints them onto her reality. Or perhaps the mind isn’t a lens through which reality is filtered, but it is reality itself, and our leads exist outside of time. That would explain why Jake casually references things he will do decades in the future, or why the long, dark road they’re on for the majority of the latter half seems to exist in a vacuum of space, or how the cryptically recurring janitor (Guy Boyd in what feels like a continuation of Caden’s janitorial role at the end of Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York) can have a conversation with a translucent maggot-infested pig.

“Choreography” literally means “dance-writing,” but for the sake of this movie, let’s think of it as movement-writing. Here, the term applies to literal dance as wholly as it does metaphysical change, the dynamism of the script, and technical filmmaking prowess. The camerawork mimics transitory reality with its own changes, twitching unexpectedly or slowly floating away, shifting angles relentlessly — who knew one could shoot two people talking in a car from that many angles? — in a way that hearkens to our own mental and emotional volatility and provides insight into what we’re experiencing. As Lucy points out, “Anything an environment makes you feel is about you, not the environment, right?”

When the camera cuts to spy on Lucy from outside the back window of the car, she casts a sharp, suspicious glance toward us as if we’re intruding on her thoughts. Minutes later, the camera is squared up inches from her face as she recites a lengthy poem, looking longingly and lovingly into our eyes. Meanwhile, the dread builds as the car charges deeper into the vacant night, the screech of windshield wipers, onslaught of snow, and droning rattle of tire chains creating the feeling of always moving forward, as if compelled — no, held hostage — by fate.

The seemingly immutable night drive comes across like a psych-horror film, as does the visit to Jake’s house, but I’m Thinking of Ending Things incorporates genre into its choreography as flamboyantly as anything else. Genre moves from psych-horror to pitch-black comedy to thriller to modern dance to family drama to musical and so on. Multiple forms of animation even made the cut.

The film is full of clever devices that point us inward by conveying the choreography of the mind. For instance, Lucy’s phone rings off the hook. She ignores it as best she can, but it tends to steal her attention. The missed calls are from “Lucy” and “Louisa,” and the voicemails left behind come from a frantic, monotonous, and masculine voice. While it’s unclear as to what “answer” he’s rambling on about, it seems fair enough to assume the voice might represent a conscience, a fear, self-deprecation, anxiety, depression, or something similar that nags us from inside. It also prompts one to double-check what fictional name Buckley is credited under. As it turns out, she is just called “Young Woman.”

Sometimes verbal responses are so perfectly timed and well thought out that we know the mind pieced them together on its own simply because a person couldn’t have. Other times, we’re listening to the Young Woman’s thoughts and Jake suddenly interrupts them. The frustration we feel for Lucy reassures every viewer that to be cut off from one’s thoughts can feel as disruptive as being interrupted plainly mid-conversation. However, it also reminds us that our mind is an un-tamable echo chamber that benefits from outside voices. “That’s why I like road trips,” Jake says. “They help you remember the world is bigger than what’s inside your own head.”

During the opening tour, a brief glimpse of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic masterpiece Wanderer above the Sea of Fog draws a parallel to the Young Woman. Like the Rückenfigur man depicted towering over nature in the painting, she seemingly runs the show, but she isn’t actually in control. It’s her mind, but who of us understands the mind in all of its maddening complexity? It’s our land, but what are we going to do about it if nature decides to run its course? The mind holds one together (just as it can tear one apart), not the other way around. We are at the mercy of our mind in its fascinating, unwieldy choreography of reality – an existential truth that Friedrich and Kaufman would certainly agree on.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an interior life, briefly lived. We find ourselves in a wild, unintelligible set of circumstances, surrounded by people but inevitably alone. One minute you’re skeptical, then suddenly you’re crying, or laughing, or perplexed, or repulsed, or singing along, or asleep, or dreaming, or gone. As Kaufman portrays it, the choreography of the mind is at once familiar and foreign. It is an intoxicatingly beautiful delirium that lands in a valley of hope — in which goodness and love abide so long as one is searching for them — without sacrificing a healthy dose of Kaufman’s career-defining cynicism. And perhaps it lands there out of necessity. As the Young Woman explains, “Other animals live in the present. Humans cannot. So, they invented hope.”

Luke Hicks: Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.