(Note: Every so often a movie comes along that’s nearly impossible to describe without spoiling, so I’ll do my best to explain “The One I Love” in the vaguest terms possible.)
“The One I Love” stars Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass as Sophie and Ethan, a couple who has seen its relationship go from exciting and passionate to dull and routine. It’s not just familiarity that has bred contempt between them: Ethan was unfaithful once, and Sophie has yet to forgive him. At the same time, she has habits and walls of her own, so she’s hardly blameless for their current malaise.
At the advice of their therapist (Ted Danson), the two of them spend a weekend at a beautiful country house in hopes of reconnecting. What they find on the grounds is far more than they’d expected, and it becomes less clear whether the vacation will be the best or worst thing possible for their relationship.
Director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader, both making impressive feature debuts, lull us into expecting a low-key drama about two people trying to get their groove back, something along the lines of Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in “Hope Springs.” Once the film takes its turn, we’re no less engaged in what happens to Sophie and Ethan, but the path toward whatever resolution awaits them isn’t what we would have expected.
Moss and Duplas carry a heavy burden, but they’re more than up to the task of everything the film throws their way. Each has to explore various facets, shadings and tones of these characters, and each succeeds impressively. It’s never easy to capture simultaneously the spark that brings a couple together and the resentments that drive them apart, but these actors nail all that — and even more.
Weeks after seeing the film, I find myself thinking about tiny choices and little details that each actor brings to the work, and what they’re able to accomplish is extraordinary, particularly since they’re called upon to keep the action grounded in reality when the movie takes a very big leap.
Editor Jennifer Lilly (“Were the World Mine”) and composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans also play a key role, increasing the tension and suspense with such delicacy that, like the proverbial frog in the pot of heating water, we barely notice the growing unease as it escalates.
The challenge of going for a big twist like this is that you’ve either got to keep it a mystery or explain it, but if you’re going to explain the twist, it still has to make sense. That’s where “The One I Love” drops the ball a bit; better to eschew logic and rationality altogether rather than offer up a solution that doesn’t really scan.
Still, even with a slightly unsatisfying resolution, “The One I Love” remains provocative and haunting. See it before someone spoils the surprise, but maybe don’t go with a first date; like the R.E.M. song of the same name, the title implies romance and sentimentality, but the text delivers something else entirely.