2014 - 91 minutes
Directed by: Charlie McDowell
Written by: Justin Lader
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ted Danson
The big swerve in The One I Love isn’t a Bruce-Willis-was-dead-the-whole-time yanking of the narrative rug, but it’s still best to go into the film as fresh as possible. It’s also more interesting than a gotcha thriller twist. The unusual happenings begin fairly early in the film, but I will only speak of those events vaguely.
Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are a married couple stuck in a familiar rut. An extra-marital affair is a convenient reason for counseling, but partner familiarity breeding contempt is clearly the reason for not communicating or having sex. The couple yearns for the days when they did drugs and snuck into neighborhood pools, but can’t recreate the magic. Their therapist (Ted Danson) spouts some standard shinkspeak before suggesting a weekend getaway at a bucolic estate he promises will refresh their relationship. He also conducts an exercise with Sophie and Ethan playing random piano notes. At first it may feel like a lame metaphor for them being out of tune, but it may mean something else later. What, I’m not exactly sure. But something.
Once we get to the getaway, the script from Justin Lader goes to extremes in exploring the idea of reconnecting with the best version of yourself and your partner. These partners seem content enough in the country ranch home, their first vacation together in a long time, but things really get interesting in the quaint guest house on the grounds. Ethan loosens up after smoking pot and has spontaneous sex with Sophie; Sophie cooks Ethan bacon without deriding his diet. But the good times don’t always last as lingering resentments and conflicts muddy the occasional bursts of enjoyment. Lader’s deft writing and Charlie McDowell’s direction effectively juggle the bi-polar ups and downs, utilizing metaphysical impossibilities that capture relationship foibles better than a “realistic” weepy, sentimental tone full of pensive stares and melodrama would. It’s an impressive level of touch from a writer and director each making their feature debut.
As the only two actors on screen for a vast majority of the film, Moss and Duplass are also successful in transitions in mood, alternating between supremely pleased, to indifferent, to supremely disgusted by their other halves. There’s no pandering to the audience or requests to side with one person over the other, only honest representations of the qualities that bring these people together and the ones that drive them apart. The actors add to the duality of the roles in ways that go beyond subtle changes in hairstyle or the frequency of their smiles. They’re fully committed to the concept, but don’t let it overpower their choices.
The problems come when The One I Love falls too in love with its quirky conceit, but not enamored enough to make revelations really pay off. Instead of leaving the secrets of the guest house completely vague or committing to full disclosure, we get some grating half-explanations that come off as posturing meant to make us think something really intelligent is happening. The straying final act takes us out of the engaging interplay between Duplass and Moss, and distracts from what made us get invested in the movie in the first place. That’s probably a little more meta than it wants to be, but The One I Love is still a worthwhile exercise.