The casting of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is both surprising and brilliant. This is one case where the filmmakers decided to completely ignore the character descriptions from the novel and make the most of the unique chemistry that unique character actors can bring to a project. I’ll have a lot more to write about the parents later — that was a particularly brilliant piece of casting — but will focus now on the two leads.
Jessie Buckley plays the girlfriend (none of the names given the character in the film are definitively true) and she’s an inspired choice. An Irish actress with a strong musical theater background, Buckley starred last year in the British Star Is Born-like film “Wild Rose,” in which she earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress. She’s also had roles in the BBC miniseries of “War and Peace” and in HBO’s “Chernobyl” last year. Starting next month, Buckley will be in the new season of “Fargo.”
I find it interesting that Kaufman chose to cast a very strong singer into this role given that musical theater is one of his most inspired additions to the story. Perhaps he had in mind musical numbers and later changed his mind, because we don’t get to hear Buckley sing (although we do hear her co-star.)
This could be just a stray irrelevant fact, but the book makes it clear that the character is a blonde, but Kaufman chose to go with a redhead. There are many reasons why he might have done this. For one, he might have just liked the actress best. It also makes for a clearer contrast with the two blonde workers at Tulsey Town in one of the movie’s most important scenes. I’ll have more to say about the character’s red hair (and reddish winter coat) later in this piece.
The male lead — Jake — is played by Jesse Plemons, who was a child actor starting at the age of three and has had significant film roles for more than 20 years despite being only 32. Plemons is probably best known for his work in the TV show “Friday Night Lights,” but he has also appeared in “Breaking Bad” and the spinoff movie “El Camino.” This is a breakthrough role for him, his first major film lead performance.
I sense that Kaufman cast him, in part, due to his physical resemblance to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in “Synecdoche, New York” in 2008. That was the first film Kaufman directed and Plemons not only draws a straight line back to a very similar character, he adds an air of tragedy to this film right off the bat by reminding us of Hoffman’s far too early death.
The chemistry between these two leads is outstanding, giving both a sense of why the pair would get together in the first place and why they might also be a very poor fit in the long run. I can’t help believing that the girlfriend is a bit too good for him at every point, but not to such an extent that you couldn’t see her giving it a shot for a brief period.
That’s enough about the actors for now, back to the story. While much of the interior dialogue from the girlfriend early in the journey comes directly from the book, Kaufman adds the wrinkle of Jake imagining that she’s saying the words aloud. He explicitly asks “did you say something” at one point and other times looks over as if he knows what she’s saying but doesn’t want her to know. The dialogue previewed in the opening monologue about stopping for something to eat before getting to his parents’ house is repeated here — answering the question of whether that monologue is simply placed in the wrong spot. It is not. She had a premonition of the conversation to come.
The movie then cuts to the family house, where the janitor is sitting in the dining room (at the same table where they will later share a meal with the parents) watching a small RCA color TV and an episode of “Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends” featuring “Peabody’s Improbable History.” I cannot tell from this short clip which of the 91 episodes of that show within the show is airing, if anyone recognizes it, please let me know.
Here we get one of Kaufman’s really fascinating alignments with the book that he does several times. There’s a scene in the book where Jake ponders whether he is the smartest man alive. Kaufman cuts that from the movie, but he instead inserts the cartoon dog Peabody, who is known in his show as “the smartest being in existence.” Another interesting alignment: Peabody is awarded a Nobel prize in one episode of his show, just like Jake is at the movie’s end.
After the very brief show clip, we see the janitor in the kitchen hand washing a dish in the sink, looking out the window at the swing set in the yard. This swing set will soon return as an odd conversation piece between the couple during their drive to the house.
Returning to the car, Jake says that his mother hasn’t been feeling well, so they shouldn’t expect to get too big of a spread at meal time (this turns out to be untrue.) The girlfriend tries to get out of him what is wrong with her, but Jake changes the subject back to the meal and the possibility of stopping for food on the way. Is he hinting, perhaps, that he’d like to visit a Tulsey Town? She turns down the offer, so we never find out.
Back to the house, the janitor is shown brushing his teeth, then he gets into his pickup truck parked in the front of the house. There is a bag from Tulsey Town crumpled on the floor, plus a metallic green Stanley thermos and a paper bag with his lunch (or maybe dinner, given how late he seems to work.)
On the radio as he leaves the driveway, we hear a voice that will return in the final scenes of the movie … the radio announcer is the same voice actor of the cartoon pig later in the movie and his first words are the same as the cartoon pig’s voice “come now.” The radio announcer goes on to say “Join me my friends, accept Jesus into your hearts, for as Isaiah 1:18 tell us “Though your sins may be as scarlet, they will be white as snow.”
We get a lot of white snow throughout the movie. I’ll be on the lookout for some scarlet, but one character immediately comes to mind — the girlfriend. She is both red haired and is wearing a red coat. (Or perhaps better stated, red-ish, it has a somewhat purple shade.) Is the girlfriend is some ways a symbol of the character’s sins? Does she embody something he finds shameful or impure that must be cleansed in the snow?
I’ll ponder that as we move on.