Given that a limited release precluded many people from actually seeing this film in 2014 I’m loathe to give too many details away about the plot, particularly now that it is finding an audience via streaming services. Hopefully it’s sufficient to say that it begins as a knowing romantic dramedy, in which fractious couple Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) attempt to save their relationship by visiting Ted Danson’s therapist, but it becomes something else entirely; in fact throughout I kept thinking that The One I Love resembles a modern, updated episode of The Twilight Zone more than any other movie I have seen recently.
In employing just three characters (well, kind of) and using one location for the majority of the running time, Charlie McDowell’s film even feels like an episode of a TV show, despite the fact it has a feature length of 91 minutes. There’s heavy reliance on Duplass and Moss, as Danson only appears in the prologue, but his brief time on screen makes a lasting impression. When his character is required to answer pertinent questions later he cannot be found and there’s just one sign that a practice was even there in the first place; as such he seems like a modern-day huckster, a bit like a quack doctor with a travelling medicine show, and the mystery surrounding his work lingers long after the final credits. Writer Justin Lader appears to have had the culpability or reliability of marriage guidance and counselling services at least partly in mind when penning this satire.
When we first see Ethan and Sophie they’re trying to recreate an incident from an earlier time in their relationship, in which they jumped fully-clothed into a swimming pool at night. They do the same again but now they’re older, perhaps less giddy than when they were in the first flushes of love, and the water’s colder than they remember. And that sums up the state of their union: there’s still a desire to make things work but the spark has gone and familiarity is breeding contempt. Danson’s answer is to get them to play notes on a piano together before packing them off for a weekend in a cottage in Californian wine country. Ethan and Sophie assume that this is so that they can reconnect without distraction, and as they share some weed and have a meal the mini-break looks to be progressing well, before things take a turn for the weird.
The story that follows is both fun and engrossing, and perhaps one that will cause divisions between watching couples: it’s possible to side with Ethan, who is treated poorly at times, but it is conveniently revealed that he cheated in the past and he shows further signs of duplicitous behaviour here. Those rooting for Sophie, meanwhile, could point to her positive action in taking the necessary steps to ensure her future happiness, but she’s also disloyal and far less committed to solving existing problems than her partner. Both actors turn in very good performances, particularly Moss who – as I’ve said elsewhere recently – is worth watching in anything at the moment. Unfortunately the film comes apart at the seams a little near the end: Lader’s attempts to explain away the premise diminish the effect of the magic realism we’ve seen up to that point and the reliance on farce eventually becomes a little wearing. But the screenplay does successfully tackle idealistic notions of a partner being perfect and serves as a smart treatise on the way opposite numbers are perceived during arguments and misunderstandings.
Directed by: Charlie McDowell.
Written by: Justin Lader.
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ted Danson.
Cinematography: Doug Emmett.
Editing: Jennifer Lilly.
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans.
Running Time: 91 minutes.