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Mark Ruffalo, Peter Krause, Naomi Watts, and Laura Dern in We Don’t Live Here Anymore. (Photograph by Kimberly French)

We Don’t Live Here Anymore is a heavy dose of marital angst—even Ingmar Bergman might have blanched at it. Directed by John Curran and based on Andre Dubus’s novella, as well as borrowings from his story “Adultery,” the movie wastes no time in announcing its intentions: In the very first scene, Jack Linden (Mark Ruffalo), a literature professor who is married to Terry (Laura Dern), leaves his house party to make a beer run with Edith (Naomi Watts), the wife of his best friend and fellow teacher, Hank Evans (Peter Krause). It quickly becomes clear that they’re having an affair; nuzzling in the car, they seem both exhilarated and worn down by their guilt. Back home, after the Evanses leave, Terry’s drunken suspicions give rise to new ones—she hints, with a touch of pride, at Hank’s advances. (Typically, Jack gets angry at her.) Later on, as the recriminations between the spouses multiply, the calculus of mutual ardor reaches bewildering proportions. These people don’t really know how to love, or else forgot what they once knew; sexual desire has become their only way of feeling, and even that is unsatisfactory. The screenwriter, Larry Gross, has said the movie is about how “love doesn’t necessarily make you happy,” but the four players aren’t even masochistic enough to enjoy their unhappiness. Their fights, with their sickening familiarity, are all variations on the ones that came before. The only difference is that afterward, the climb back to normalcy is steeper.

In his stories, Dubus does something very difficult: He dramatizes the loss of passion without ever once making it feel as banal as it does to the characters. Perhaps this is because he is able to see these people as they once were, and because he holds out for them the possibility of redemption. The movie doesn’t have the boozy, bruised richness of the stories, even though it expands Dubus’s narrative to incorporate the viewpoints of all the characters. What it does occasionally have, particularly in Ruffalo’s performance, is a sense of how confounding love and lovelessness truly are. It takes a while to warm to the film’s stop-start rhythm; even though some of the marital fights are lulus, particularly those incited by the achingly miserable Terry, they don’t lead to the neat emotional resolutions that are commonplace for this kind of material. A sense of unease, of incompleteness, is, I think, the appropriate response to this movie. Instead of trying to fill in the blanks, Curran and Gross leave things open and ambiguous. Just like life.

“In a lesser actor’s hands, Jack’s situation could be summed up as midlife crisis. With Ruffalo, it’s a soul sickness.”

Jack’s insight into great literature—Tolstoy is a favorite—is of no help in navigating his squalls. Hank is a failed novelist, and it’s difficult to know if he has any talent. (His greatest success is getting a poem published in The New Yorker.) The two jog together in the leafy New England suburbs and enjoy their comradeship away from their wives. The joke, of course, is that, without ever owning up to it, each covets the other’s mate. Because Hank doesn’t love Edith anymore, he allows himself the license of having affairs but never contemplates divorce. (He fancies himself a European-style husband.) Jack thinks Terry is messy and neglectful of their two children, but at the same time he thinks she’s fantastic—just not as his wife. (Edith is a bigger fan of Terry’s.)

The erotic gamesmanship in this quartet is highly intricate. Hank is the master of ceremonies who tacitly desires what’s best for everyone, even if that means Jack’s sleeping with his wife. When she’s with Jack, Edith takes a curdled amusement in contemplating how they will get caught. Terry is the only member of the group who is unqualifiedly in love, but she demonstrates it by provoking Jack into being a cuckold—she senses that this is what he really wants. The characters spend a great deal of time venting, but they seem to know that the talk isn’t helping. They’re beyond talk.

The difficulty in placing so much intensity into such a narrow dramatic frame is that, inevitably, many of the scenes register in the same emotional key. Dern is constantly ramping up the ire until the harridan in her finally takes over. Watts is a bit too unyielding a presence to play someone who has cast herself (however willingly) as victim; Krause doesn’t expose the torment that underlies Hank’s oily bonhomie. (His big moment comes when he grills his rejected novel on the barbecue.) Only Ruffalo, who works with an intuitive, unemphatic grace, brings out the dizzying contradictions in his character. Jack knows he’s a worm, but on some level he wants to do right by everybody—he wants to save Terry from himself, he wants to protect his children (his real love), he doesn’t want to hurt Edith. He even cares for Hank, despite (or perhaps because of) everything his friend has perpetrated. In a lesser actor’s hands, Jack’s situation could be summed up as midlife crisis, but with Ruffalo it’s a soul sickness. This is not just a phase we are watching, it’s the human condition.

I’m not one of those people who need to be convinced that deep-sea diving is scary, so the cautionary aspects of Open Water were lost on me. Still, as the opening credits proclaim, the movie is all too plausibly Based on True Events. Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan) are a workaholic couple vacationing in the Bahamas who board a local dive boat for a tour of the reef and accidentally get left behind. Miles out to sea, with no help in sight, they tread water in the fading daylight as sharks lazily circle. Chris Kentis, who wrote, directed, edited, and shot the film (with his wife, Laura Lau), is working with prime pulp material—but he doesn’t have a pulp sensibility. I mean this as a compliment. Shot on digital video and micro-budgeted, Open Water is terrifying precisely because it doesn’t go in for cheesy shock tactics and special effects. (Those sharks are real.) Strictly speaking, it’s not even in the shark-attack genre—it’s more like a black comedy about how things can go horribly wrong on vacation. You think you’re safe, and the next thing you know you’re lost at sea and something’s nibbling your gams. That’s an apt metaphor for a lot more than scuba diving.

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