In The One I Love, Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are a couple experiencing marital trouble--the easy pleasure they used to take in each other is now work, and the little things they used to find endearing about each other are now abrasive. The silence when their therapist (Ted Danson) asks about their sex life is all the answer anyone needs.
The therapist suggests a getaway to a vacation spot he knows. A chance to get to know each other all over again. To be "renewed." They arrive at a beautiful estate, and the change of scenery seems to work. Then it starts to work really well. And then things get strange.
How strange? Well, the awesomely enigmatic trailer doesn't say, so I won't tell without a spoiler warning:
If you don't want to know more, go see it and come back. Seriously, it's on Netflix Instant, it's about 90 minutes long, and well worth it. Before the spoilers start, I can say that while Duplass is one of the big names of mumblecore, this isn't one of those films. Both Duplass and Moss give wonderful, clear-throated performances in a film that's thought provoking and funny. It's one of the best 2014 movies I've seen, very highly recommended.
SPOILER WARNING--Level 1: Premise spoilers. After this point, we'll talk about the movie's premise, but not things that happen late in the movie.
Seen the movie, now? Or at least, don't care about getting spoiled to the premise? Here goes:
The reason that things go real well, at least for Sophie, on that first night at the vacation spot is because at some point in the evening, she wanders into the guest house, which turns out to be a very special place. When either Sophie or Ethan enters the guest house alone, they find themselves in there with a copy of their spouse. Taking a cue from the Netflix closed captioning, let's call the duplicates Ethan 2 and Sophie 2. Once in there, that person can leave whenever they like, but their spouse is locked out. If both Ethan and Sophie enter the guest house at the same time, the dupes disappear, and if Sophie or Ethan suggests that their spouse's duplicate might want to leave the guest house, they make an excuse not to.
This setup works as a powerful metaphor for what people want in their partners. Ethan 2 and Sophie 2 seem to be conjured out of thin air when one of their original counterparts walks through the door. They seem to only exist to service their counterpart's desires, whether they be for romance, a cuddle on the couch, or restoring bacon to the breakfast menu. Even though Ethan and Sophie both walk in on their duplicates while they're in the middle of doing something--at one point Ethan 2's painting, at another Sophie 2's reading a book--they appear to not exist when one of the originals isn't in the guest house. Out of sight, out of mind, out of existence.
This sets up a simple and obvious conflict: how does someone compete with an ideal version of themselves? How can Ethan and Sophie remain true to each other when there's an exact copy of their spouse a short walk away who lacks all the married people hangups that have dragged their relationship down?
To its credit, The One I Love plays out this simple conflict in some surprising ways, even before things happen to make us question whether the conflict was ever simple at all. Justin Lader's script is sharply observed: Ethan and Sophie's fights all feel grounded in reality, even the ones provoked by the film's fantastic premise. Director Charlie McDowell does a good job orienting and sometimes disorienting us within the film's relatively closed world. The bulk of the action happens in the vacation estate, and the interiors of the main house and the guest house are similar enough that we sometimes don't know where we are--and therefore which version of Ethan is talking to which version of Sophie--until telltale details come into view.
Still, the greatest weight of the film falls on Moss and Duplass. Duplass has the showier role, as the two Ethans are extremely distinct, even beyond the superficial Clark Kent/Superman differences in hair style and glasses. Duplass makes Original Recipe Ethan such an unpleasant passive-aggressive character that at times I found myself being physically repulsed by his glasses. Looking at stills of the movie, though I came to realize it's not that the glasses are extraordinarily ugly, it's that Duplass's acting is that good.
Moss's work is subtler, but just as impressive. But to really dig into her performance, I'm gonna need to take the spoilers to another level.
WARNING MORE SPOILERS--Level 2: Story spoilers. These spoilers actually spoil the end of the movie. If you haven't seen the movie, seriously, just go and do it. Are you still reading? Don't say I didn't warn you!
When I say that the conflict the movie sets up is simple, what I mean is that I see how it would work out as a typical romantic comedy. That comedy would probably be called Guest House, and it would essentially be Mr. Destiny with a little bit of The Ref thrown in.
In this version, Sophie and Ethan would each explore life with their spouse's duplicates, there would be a little mutual jealousy that's played for comedy, and in the end they'd both learn the important life lesson that the person they married is actually better than the idealized version they find in the guest house, because they're real, and the experiences they've had together in their marriage, both good and bad, are real, yadda yadda yadda. That comedy probably ends with the couple returning Danson's office months later, Moss sporting a cute little baby bump that serves as a reaffirmation of their marital vows. Those crazy kids are going to be A-OK thanks to their experiences in the magical guest house.
It shouldn't be surprising, given the tone of the review so far and the trailer, that Guest House isn't what we get in this movie. What was surprising to me is how asymmetrical the story is. Ethan doesn't avail himself of the opportunity to explore a relationship with Sophie 2. Even though Sophie 2 is a smiling, compliant version of his wife, he holds her at arm's length. The plot of The One I Love is mainly about the love triangle between Ethan, Sophie, and Ethan 2.
The big acting challenge for Moss in this movie isn't portraying the difference between Sophie and Sophie 2--she does a nice job, but we don't get to know Sophie 2 very well. The challenge is in her differing portrayals of Sophie, when she's with Ethan and when she's with Ethan 2. Moss as Sophie has good chemistry with Duplass in both his roles. The chemistry with Ethan is the chemistry of people who know each other really well, care about each other, but are also sick of the other's bullshit. Ethan 2 and Sophie have the chemistry of two people in love, and Sophie's a completely different person--bubbly, funny, passionate--in that role.
This proves to be significant. As it turns out, Ethan 2 and Sophie 2 are not real copies of Ethan and Sophie, they're past guests who, through whatever magic or technology is involved in the guest house, are trapped on the grounds until they can ensnare the next couple and replace them in the outside world. Ethan 2 doesn't have Ethan's memories or personality, something that gradually becomes explicit toward the end of the movie, and looking back, should've been obvious all along. Ethan 2 speaks differently than Ethan, believes different things, and has a completely different attitude. The dupes only look and sound like the originals.
This discovery changes the tone of the film. At the end, The One I Love is about the kinds of self-deception people will accept in relationships. Early in the film, the couple recount to their therapist about a failed effort they made on their anniversary to re-create the night they first met. It seems like that moment in the movie is nostalgic--they miss the couple they used to be. The movie's reveal puts this nostalgia in a different context. Sophie is not wistful for the man Ethan used to be, she's nostalgic for a time when she didn't know who Ethan was, when he could've turned out to be someone completely different, like Ethan 2.
Ultimately, the fact that Ethan proves no more capable than Sophie of identifying the one he loves shows that this type of self-deception is not a one way street. In matters of the heart, seeing only what we want to see is a constant peril. In case you missed it the first time, The One I Love is very highly recommended.