I really, really, really want to tell you what happens in The One I Love, the smart and slithery new movie by director Charlie McDowell, but I can’t. To reveal the device at the center of this cinematic mind-fuck about a married couple on the skids and their surreal, disarming and ultimately transformative experiences during a weekend retreat suggested by their therapist would be tantamount to breaking the first rule of Fight Club (“Don’t talk about fight club”) or spilling the beans on Rosebud in Citizen Kane (it’s the sled). Spoilers, even when they’re floated in sheer enthusiasm, are nothing but sour grapes — alert or no alert. I won’t do it.
Instead, I’ll talk around this movie, in terms abstract but hopefully still helpful. I can tell you, safely, about the opening ten minutes of The One I Love, which introduce us to Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss), who are attempting to reinvigorate their ebbing romantic connection by recreating the night they met, when they jumped into a neighbor’s swimming pool and got caught. This time around, their excited jump into the pool is met with no resistance; they just float there, waiting to get busted, and as it becomes apparent that the neighbor is not home, we witness the mute, intimate disappointment that sucks the air out of long-term relationships.
Enter the marriage counselor (Ted Danson) who, witnessing up close the dire state of Ethan and Sophie’s sexual stalemate, urges them to drive out to a country estate for a little romantic getaway. Every couple he’s sent that way, he says, has come back renewed. They take the bait. And what happens out at that weekend retreat — a lush colonial complete with a separate “guest house” and a sort of home studio called “The Coop” — is indeed “renewing,” in the same way that, say, a gargantuan dose of LSD when you least expect it is renewing.
The first half of the film is clever and insightful, as the strange happenings at the retreat bring Ethan and Sophie face-to-face with the impossible expectations they’ve placed on each other and the manner in which those expectations have calcified into resentment and dissatisfaction. And just as the conceit begins to wear thin, growing a bit too cutesy, the movie takes a dark and devious turn, sending the already unnerved couple down a rabbit hole of suspicion, doubt and betrayal.
Both Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed) and Moss (Mad Men) are excellent in roles that demand a high level of subtlety and sophisticated characterization; in fact, it is their on-screen chemistry, revealed in small, familiar gestures and knowing looks, that grounds this film, which otherwise might have taken a disastrous left turn into pure pretense. It is best not to ask the big “why” at the center of The One I Love, but rather to give in to the logic of it’s illogic, and let it lead you to its final Twilight Zone reckoning — an end game where desire and commitment take on a whole new meaning.