DVD RE-RUN REVIEW: Curran and Gross Probe Domestic Strife in "We Don't Live Here Anymore"
by Peter Brunette
[EDITORS NOTE: Peter Brunette reviewed "We Don't Live Here Anymore" earlier this year for indieWIRE. The film will be available on DVD this week, on December 14, 2004.]
With the exception of an obvious, enduring masterpiece like Ingmar Bergman's six-hour "Scenes from a Marriage," most films about marital infidelity and domestic strife -- think of "Ice Storm" -- don't fare as well, aesthetically or commercially, as the novels on which they're (usually) based. The problem is that, in the movies, the rich psychological interiority that redeems the surface whining and non-stop anguish endemic to such relationships is missing, exasperating viewers with characters who are inevitably seen, not incorrectly, as supremely narcissistic. (During movies like this, you can't help thinking about people with real problems, like cancer or malnutrition.)
John Curran's new film, "We Don't Live Here Anymore," which is based on two short stories by Andre Dubus (whose work was most recently seen as the source of "In the Bedroom"), is naturally vulnerable to this same difficulty, and many critics and more audience-members are sure to be turned off by the claustrophobia and endless dialogue that comes with the territory. But within the limits of this admittedly dicey genre, Curran and his screenwriter, the very talented Larry Gross, have constructed a deeply probing if imperfect tale that is charged with enthralling performances by its four principals.
Though shot in Vancouver, the film is set in an unspecified college town and, for once, the professorial life is presented in a believable manner. Jack and Terry Linden (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) enjoy doing everything with their best friends, Hank and Edith Evans (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts). What the high-strung and dependent Terry doesn't know, however, is that her English-teacher husband Jack is having a torrid affair with Edith. When the inevitable tell-tale signs begin to appear (in an inspired line of dialogue, Edith, during one of their trysts, rhetorically asks Jack, "I wonder how we'll get caught?"), Terry seeks revenge and release by enticing Hank, who teaches creative writing, into some sexual tit-for-tat. Unfortunately for her, she can't handle the ensuing psychological complexities, and Hank, presumably a stand-in for writer Dubus, is really more interested in his work than in either woman.
These characters are rescued from their potential superficiality by the wonderfully talented cast. Ruffalo, happily, has left behind many of the edgy mannerisms that made him so convincing in "You Can Count on Me" and "In the Cut," but which threatened to trap him into playing the same character ad nauseum. Dern is painfully vulnerable and exposed, and Watts is sexy and forceful, but the real revelation is Peter Krause, best-known (virtually only-known) for his role in HBO's "Six Feet Under," who more than holds his own within this intense group.
Writer Gross has managed to perpetuate and even enhance many of the telling insights contained in Dubus' original stories, and viewers will recognize, with a shiver, the emotional manipulation that seems inherent to all human emotional relationships, especially of the marital variety. Here, motives are jumbled and incoherent, as always in real life, and an impenetrable sadness and quiet violence hangs over all. The filmmakers also manage to convey the heedlessness of sexual desire in a novel way. A important choice was to include in more than a few scenes the children in each family, relief-bringing foils who provide a real-world context that happily mitigates the overwhelming intensity that would come from living exclusively within this foursome. Especially noteworthy is director Curran's adventurous editing, which reinvigorates the flashback technique and often visually juxtaposes different characters with the dialogue of scenes they aren't physically a part of, creating a refreshing, suggestive resonance.
The film is also marked by a few imperfections, most notably a voiceover that is used inconsistently, never enough to really work, but too often to blend naturally. Also, the abundance of Sturm-und-Drang involved in people endlessly fighting finally does begin to take a toll, and viewers may find themselves wishing for a breath of fresh air. And plot points come a little too quickly and too close together near the end of the film, leaving motivation more mysteriously confused than ever, as Curran and Gross strive to wrap things up with a punch. But the great bulk of this scab-picking drama will keep viewers on edge, wondering what is left for these selfish, clueless, but fascinating people to do to one another.