When it comes to marriage, especially marriage with children, every couple reinvents the torture wheel. Different people make different sorts of compromises between freedom and responsibility, based on different thresholds for shrieking volleys of four-letter words, serial infidelity, and the other forms of emotional battery that tend to accompany cohabitation. And it's a good thing, too, or American domestic novels would all be the same, and the chamber drama We Don't Live Here Anymore (Warner Independent Pictures)—based on two linked novellas by the late Andre Dubus—wouldn't leave you so wrung-out. This is not a movie to see if you're contemplating tying the knot; it's a hard slog for those of us already entwined.
The film, directed by John Curran from a script by Larry Gross, revolves around two couples: Jack (Mark Ruffalo) and Terry (Laura Dern), and Hank (Peter Krause) and Edith (Naomi Watts). The men are college-English-department academics (with beards), the women stay-at-home moms—probably more common in the academic world of the early '70s, when Dubus' novellas were written. (The script was written in the '70s, but the movie appears to be set in the present.) We Don't Live Here Anymore opens with these two couples, somewhat drunk, dancing and hanging out in Jack and Terry's kitchen. Then Ruffalo's Jack heads off to buy beer with Watts' Edith, and an awkward, sputtering declaration, a smooch, and a date for a rendezvous signal the start of something big. But Krause's Hank, the unpublished novelist, isn't oblivious to what's brewing between his wife and best buddy. His own affairs are legion, and he might have designs on the miserably forsaken Terry.
"Miserably" is not a word I use lightly here: Dern turns Terry into one of the more desperately, ragingly neglected spouses in the annals of film. The actress' face, always mobile, now approaches Claymation—especially that wiggly semaphore of a mouth that is constantly collapsing and reforming. Terry thinks that Jack is relentlessly judging her and finding her wanting—and she's not wrong. When Terry sags in defeat, the skin on Dern's face looks ready to slide into a puddle on the ground, and her stringy haggardness is often downright alarming. It's a powerful, committed performance (redolent of the actress's own romantic past), but Dern makes Terry's confrontationalism so intensely painful that it's no wonder Jack is driven into the arms of Watts' relatively cool Edith.
Well, OK, no man would need much of an excuse. Watts is pretty as a clear pond, which is not to say she has no depths: She's Sharon Stone with soul. The script, by Larry Gross, doesn't bring out Edith's inner life. (The second Dubus novella, "Adultery," is told from her point of view.) But Krause's Hank has the sort of mythic narcissism that makes her affair an act of self-preservation. Hank has that Lord-of-Misrule self-centeredness you see in artists who decide that their work gives them license to do anything: They can justify indulging their most selfish and destructive impulses in the name of studying human nature. It's all fodder for fiction, right? Hank tells Jack, after one of those runs that turn into a macho competition, "You're too nice to sleep with other women without loving them. Just once try fucking someone because it feels good." Except that Ruffalo's Jack isn't especially "nice." He's always fleeing the mess that is his wife (Terry is a slob), and then criticizing her for that mess. His passivity is another form of torture. He lies in bed, pretending to be asleep while, downstairs, his best friend seduces his wife, and then takes sadistic pleasure in letting her know he was awake the whole time.
The veteran screenwriter, Gross, did a sterling job with his underrated, exceedingly nasty adaptation of Jim Thompson's exceedingly nasty This World, Then the Fireworks (1998). But he's a sensationalist: His work has punch but spotty dramatic logic. His adaptation here is quasi-faithful, by which I mean he preserves Dubus' dialogue but doesn't always keep the right context or speaker. "Sometimes I think I love you even more than I think I do," says Ruffalo's Jack to Watts' Edith after their initial coupling—which doesn't quite scan. In the novella, they've been sleeping together at least a month, and it makes a difference! Later, Edith has a speech about a trip to the zoo: how a gorilla crapped into its hand, held up the crap so that the human onlookers could see, and then licked the crap; and how this was the gorilla's way of showing how trapped it was—and, by extension, how trapped she is. It's a good monologue, but in the film it comes when she's still in mid-affair instead of later, when that option for release has been choked off.
It's too bad the script has the fuzzies, because We Don't Live Here Anymore might have been a bad-marriage classic. It's still pretty potent. Films about couples breaking up often build to we're-all-gorillas-licking-our-shit metaphors or drunken husband-wife brawls; this one has them from start to finish. Even the lame excuses of the furtive lovers as they head out the door to "take the car in" or "run some errands" or "do some work in the library" hit you like blows—especially when the needy kids are being lied to along with the spouses.
Curran made a little-seen (in this country) Australian movie called Praise (1998): When I reviewed it, I compared it to Sid & Nancy (1986) "if you took away the violence and satire and melodrama and rock 'n' roll—in other words, all the externals—and left only the grasping." We Don't Live Here Anymore proves that Curran has a taste for grasping, and for moving his camera close enough so that the characters' pain twists you up, but not so close that the actors are violated. The movie is intimate yet jarringly distanced by floating long shots, sudden allusive flashbacks, and mysterious transitions. The score, by Michael Covertino, deepens the mystery. In one scene, Jack's little daughter watches a moon-walk on TV, and the sounds are picked up and carried through the film: echoey blips and beeps and disharmonic shimmers like astral winds. It's music for people right on top of one another and yet lost in space.