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
Watch this as a double-bill with Mike Nichols' "Closer," and you very well might swear off love, relationships and marriage for a very long time, if not forever.
The last screenwriter I'd expect to write a somber, almost Bergmanesque exploration of marriage and infidelity would be Larry Gross, whose credits include "48 HRS." (1982) and "Streets of Fire" 1984) for Walter Hill and "True Crime" (1999) for Clint Eastwood.
Yet Gross has turned two Andre Dubus short stories into an engaging, albeit somewhat depressing, movie that explores marital infidelities among two couples - Jack (Mark Ruffalo) and Terry Linden (Laura Dern); and Hank (Peter Krause) and Edith Evans (Naomi Watts).
Much like the Nichols film, "We Don't Live Here Anymore" can be tough viewing, at times. Uncomfortable, even occasionally painful. But the actors make it work, often lifting it above trite moments. Director John Curran keeps things tight and gets emotionally powerful performances from them. Though, the film would have smarted more had Krause injected some rawness into his role. Hank seems too laid-back about the whole affair and Krause's performance never inches past insouciant.
Dern throws herself fully into her strongest role since "Citizen Ruth" (1996). As a wife who's apparently lost the desire of her husband and really has little interest in housework, Dern does well to keep Terry from turning into a broad caricature. She makes Terry sad without turning her pathetic. A bedroom confrontation with Jack doesn't veer into clichés only because Dern and Ruffalo bring such brutal honesty to their roles.
Watts seems to revel in playing emotionally devastated women. Here, she throws in selfishness, to boot. Watts makes it awfully difficult for us to like Edith because she's the most manipulative of the lot. That we wind up caring about her speaks highly of Watts' acting ability.
The Lindens and the Evanses might very well take narcissism to a new level. These thoroughly self-absorbed people don't really care about the infidelity. In fact, they're so blasé about it all, you wonder if anything at all would jolt them into feeling something for someone else.
When Edith asks Jack, "How do you think we'll get caught?" she's not so much worried about her husband finding about the affair than her friend, Terry. And it's in delving into the Terry-Edith dynamic that Gross' script fails. We hear that these two women are dearest friends. Yet, we never get that feeling from watching them together. In fact, Gross never really gives either Dern or Watts, two incredible talents, the chance to play off each other. Their few scenes together barely scratch the surface of any friendship Terry and Edith might have.
True, there's nothing really sympathetic about any of these four people. I doubt redemption's around the corner, either. But the way they claw at each other's emotions, occasionally fraying themselves, as they lie and cheat, and even tell the truth, to their loved ones, makes for compelling viewing.
"We Don't Live Here Anymore" shows a side of marriage that movies, certainly American movies, rarely dare to depict. Marriage isn't easy. For many, it can be terribly hard work. Sometimes, painful and difficult work. And that's what this film shows.
You can't really say you enjoyed watching this movie, but it will linger with you long after you're done watching it; when you're stuck washing dirty dishes for the umpteenth time, picking up tossed-about laundry or suddenly realizing that your lover's quirk which you once thought was endearing and cute is now just positively irritating and infuriating.
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