It’s been 212 days since "The One I Love" premiered at Sundance back in January. That’s a full seven months of built-in intrigue about a premise for a film that bloggers and critics alike aren’t exactly sure how to write about. In fact, it’s entirely likely that if you’re reading this and haven’t seen the film, all that you’ve seen of it is the photo at the top of this page.
In "The One I Love," Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) are having marital problems. Their therapist (Ted Danson), in what seems like a last-ditch attempt to save the relationship, recommends a getaway estate where the two can reconnect. When they get there…well, that’s where problems arise both for Ethan/Sophie and those writers tasked with reviewing the film as a whole. Beyond those basic details, as part of its rollout, distributor RadiUS/TWC has imposed some restrictions on what reviews have been allowed to divulge about Charlie McDowell’s debut feature.
If you go to the Criticwire film page for "The One I Love," you’ll see comments and pull quotes that range from delicate to unapologetically candid. Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey has a well-articulated piece on the conversation surrounding "The One I Love," summarizing the reasons why withholding details about the film that occur more than 15 minutes into the runtime range from nonsensical to misguided. He concludes his argument thusly:
"But is there even a point to such cloak-and-dagger work in the Internet age, when any spoiler-seeker with a Twitter account or a browser pointed at Google can easily discover "The One I Love’s" big secret? And if distributors RadiUS/TWC were so dedicated to preserving a virgin viewership, why did they buck their normal theatrical-first pattern and release it On Demand three weeks ago? Simple: because it’s not about the movie, it’s about the marketing."
Bailey’s certainly right that anyone who wants to discover what all the fuss is about can do so with a short phrase and three clicks or less. (By the way, working "spoiler-seeker" and "virgin viewership" into back-to-back sentences is some nice alliteration work, too. Kudos, Jason.) Whether it’s a film that’s part of the festival circuit or a big studio rollout, once it’s unleashed on its first set of public eyeballs, that’s always going to be the case. In fact, that’s probably the case for all films even before they’re released, unless their title rhymes with "Schmantastic Schmour."
But there’s a difference between someone being a savvy social media investigator and being an average consumer of film-related writing and ads. In the end, the twist-premise (twistice? pretwist?) of "The One I Love" is about as central to your enjoyment of the film as the "John Harrison" reveal was to "Star Trek: Into Darkness." Both films are operating in a culture where audiences have been taught to take withheld plot details as some harbinger of shock-inducing developments. Ethan and Sophie’s retreat exploits don’t induce "Primer"-levels of brain melting, but that’s OK. In fact, that should be a welcome change rather than cause for derision. It’s refreshing to absorb those details within the context of the unfolding narrative, even if they’re writ small, rather than carry them in like part of a pre-screening syllabus.
And Bailey’s not wrong when he says that "it’s not about the movie, it’s about the marketing." Restricting people’s pre-viewing knowledge of a film does something key (and ingenious) from a publicity standpoint: it eliminates comparison. Film discussion, whether in written reviews, think pieces or podcast chats, usually thrive on the ability to point to a particular work and put it in the context of another film or filmmaker. The main thing that "The One I Love" has done with its marketing push is to remove all other films from the conversation, until people have seen it. It’s hard to make a listicle of movies with a similar premise when all you have to go on from the trailer is "enigmatic therapist," "strange house," "confused couple" and "Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons.’" Rather than having "The One I Love" contextualized within a paradigm of similarly-plotted tales before it’s even released in theaters, viewers can go in expecting "The One I Love" and only "The One I Love." Through that hyper-intense focus on marketing, it actually circles back and makes it about the movie again.
There’s actually a film coming out in the next few weeks that would make for a perfect discussion about how two films treat the same narrative problem within the context of a marriage. Here’s the thing: that other film shows its cards far later in the film than even "The One I Love" does (and it does so in a scene that affected me so viscerally that I couldn’t breathe properly for an hour after it ended). To draw that comparison, you need to a) have seen both films and b) know that the people you want to talk about it with have seen both. Not the most efficient way of talking about movies, but the key to comparing those two is how they unspool information to an audience that is as unaware of what’s going on as its characters. Revealing that those two films are connected kills those surprises. (For those who might disagree with that sentiment and are curious about this other film in question, its film page is here. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.) There’s another overarching 2014 pop culture trend that "The One I Love" would, on a basic level, slide right into would the film’s premise be widely known. But rather than being pigeonholed alongside this movie and this one and this TV show, "The One I Love" gets to exist on its own terms.
There’s a financial component to this strategy as well, as Moss and Duplass are bankable stars in a targeted capacity. Having them be the two individuals on a poster (and in the aforementioned and widely-disseminated photo above) certainly will bring in ticket- or download-buying members of a few fan bases who likely would have seen the film regardless of they would have said on "The Daily Show." But films with Emmy and Independent Spirit Award nominees shouldn’t be the only ones afforded the opportunity of a minimal information campaign. Had the surnames of the film’s two leads been Jónsdóttir and Zophoníasson and been completely in Icelandic with subtitles, this strategy would have generated the same amount of intrigue.
Full disclosure that might negate all of these previous claims: I’m a self-proclaimed, level-one spoilerphobe. I’m 82% sure I ran over someone in the aisle at the New Beverly Cinema this past weekend rushing out of the theater to avoid seeing more than ten seconds of the latest "Interstellar" trailer. So yes, there are methods of avoiding film publicity if you happen to believe that an ideal viewing experience is one with limited information. It only seems like secrecy with "The One I Love" because it’s a unique approach for a film whose explosions are figurative rather than literal. If more films of a more humble stature adopted a less-is-more approach, that would be a twist worth talking about.