The movie is set in the Pacific Northwest; specifically, Washington state. We know this from a glimpse of a license plate, the craftsman architecture of the two houses, and the mature, rich landscapes in between. The setting, like the scrutiny of the four main character's lives, is defined by the narrowness of the camera's field-of view. The one commercial street in town is only seen in the reflection of a store window, a shot of a non-descript auto-yard, or the tunnel of a tree-lined suburban sidewalk. The lush, wooded landscape is understood as an immediate presence in the domestic and professional lives of the characters; a steep hill, railroad tracks, a rushing stream, and a path over an old steel bridge are revisited again and again by the characters in their capacities as lovers, parents and friends. Written by
This is a difficult film to sit through. It presents a lot of morality issues that are unnerving. Andre Dubus' work always asked a lot of questions about human relations like the ones that are presented here from two of his short pieces.
It takes courage to take this material and bring it to the screen. Naomi Watts appears as one of the producers and she is to be congratulated even though we might be turned off by what we are watching. John Curran's directing the screen play from Larry Gross shows he has an eye for the material even though the pace is slow.
The actual victims of the affairs of Jack and Terry and Hank and Edith, are their children. It is obvious the two daughters are going to be scarred for life. They see and understand a lot more, than they might seem to, well beyond their young ages. In fact, it appears both girls know what their parents are doing.
It's easy to have an extra marital affair, but people entering into a relationship such as the quartet in this film do, have to realize they ultimately have to pay for their actions. Jack realizes it at the last moment. He knows he can't leave his son and daughter behind. Edith, on the other hand, had no problem continuing seeing Jack, as long as it was cool with him.
Hank, the young English teacher, whose poem is published by The New Yorker, lives in a fantasy world. We don't see him attached to his daughter Sharon, the same way we know Jack is to his children. He hits on the female students without any problems. He couldn't care less what his own wife is doing.
Terry, on the other hand, has to prove herself. She is a woman that has seen better days. Her beauty is fading and her house is a mess. On the other hand, Edith's house is spotless. These two women are going through a turmoil in their lives.
The only positive thing is what Jack goes through when he takes the children to the river and suddenly we don't know whether he wants to kill them, or not. The idea of losing them is what makes him, at long last, see the light. We also get to see a contrite Edith leaving with her daughter Sharon toward the train tracks; there is a hint of a possible suicide attempt, but no, she wants to start a new life and making a new start. Edith, also, realizes too late how she has harmed her daughter.
The acting is excellent. Mark Ruffalo keeps changing from film to film. He is an interesting actor no matter what a movie asks him to do. The real revelation is Laura Dern. Her Terry is a composite of women of a certain age that suddenly realize they are not going anywhere and they have made mistakes along the way, almost losing her husband and family. Peter Krause is also effective as Hank, the callous writer in love with himself. Naomi Watts is the one that doesn't fare as well. Her Edith is an enigma. She is a woman obsessed with sex with another man, but at times we don't see enough heat coming from her.
Ultimately, the two young girls that play the two daughters, Jennifer Bishop, and Haili Page make their characters seem real without doing much, which is an accomplishment.
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