Director: Charlie McDowell
Runtime: 91 minutes
While a good movie should be able to withstand the spoiling of its twists, sometimes the experienced is only heightened by going in absolutely blank. Case in point is Charlie McDowell's Sundance sensation The One I Love, which tackles marital strife through the lens of a low-key, off-kilter psychological thriller. In his beautifully assured feature length debut, McDowell, working off of a tight script by Justin Lader, has announced himself as a major talent to watch.
Yet in a year filled with excellent dramas filled with vague existential dread, The One I Love is immediately disarming in its apparent normality. Young married couple Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are in therapy, trying to save their marriage after an unspecified incident. This leads their therapist (Ted Danson) to suggest a weekend stay at a mansion that's open for rent. The shrink promises that every couple he has sent there comes back feeling reinvigorated about their relationship. Ethan and Sophie (mostly the former) are desperate, and they throw themselves into the beautiful and secluded home. During their first night, something magical seems to happen, and they enjoy and effortless evening filled with red wine and a little marijuana.
And this is where I leave you. While what happens after this point isn't so outlandish that it's impossible to guess, but the gradual sense of something being wrong in paradise is best left to unfold without foreknowledge. The film's official synopsis probably says it best: the couple is faced with an unexpected dilemma.
Outside of the flashy concept (which gently tips its hat to Haneke's Funny Games and the recent Borgman), though, McDowell and Lader have still given the relationship drama enough consequence. As the weirdness is carefully turned up, The One I Love uses its strange mystery to explore the major weaknesses in Ethan and Sophie's marriage. Most winning is how the concept allows for the film to explore heavy issues like trust and desire while still moving the narrative forward with a sense of calculated purpose.
Duplass and Moss are both exceptional in their roles, and they handle the unsettling developments with just enough levity to acknowledge the out-there situation, while still bringing enough honest emotion to keep the drama grounded in something resembling reality. Circumstances bring them together and then turn them against each on a dime, and the actors remain totally convincing even as their characters become increasingly disjointed and lost. Moss in particular is excellent at communicating the ups and downs of the relationship, and she quietly owns the film even when she has nothing to do but stare and let her eyes get watery. As the miniseries Top of the Lake, and now this film, have shown, she clearly deserves a bright future beyond Mad Men.
Even with its indie roots, its amazing how confident Mr. McDowell's direction here is (he has previously directed only a single short film). His sense of space is clear (though he can make it disorienting when needed, and his work with editor Jennifer Lilly is tight and polished. Some films running 90 minutes can feel like lifetimes, but The One I Love, which starts at a nice clip to begin with, has a hold on its storytelling that is uncommonly accomplished.
With so much build up, a few of the details that emerge (one big question is left unanswered, however) in act three feel like threats to the emotional integrity of the first hour. But even as The One I Love stretches outside of its comfort zone, it comes back to a conclusion that provides ample room for discussion, without feeling incomplete for some pretentious stab at greater meaning. This is one of those special Sundance debuts that feels like a self-contained cinematic accomplishment, rather than a festival circuit calling card that barely announces a new talent. With The One I Love, Mr. McDowell and Mr. Lader have let us know, without arrogance, that they are, indeed, the real deal.