IT’S RARE IN THIS AGE OF films like White Chicks and Alien Vs. Predator to see a film with such a complex moral landscape that it leaves one bewildered in a sea of ambiguity. John Curran’s film (adapted from Andre Dubus’s stories) of scruffy beards, scotch, New England bridges, and brutal and simultaneously endearing adultery is maybe the first film I’ve seen since David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers that made me feel extremely young and terrified of the world of middle age. Unglamorous, often painful, and ultimately depressing, We Don’t Live Here Anymore is not a fun movie; however, it is deeply honest and buoyed by some of the most resonant performances in recent American cinema.
The film centers around two couples: Jack (Mark Ruffalo) is a fragile, semi-smarmy English professor struggling with his seemingly uncontrollable cruelty to his wife Terri (Laura Dern), a heavy drinking, slobbish, yet passionate and morally honest woman; Hank (Peter Krause) is a self-centered, charming, and ultimately aloof (and sleazy) writing professor, and his wife Edith (Naomi Watts) is a beautiful, sad woman who is wearily resilient to her husband’s indiscretions. As the movie begins, Jack and Edith are engaged in a rapturous, heady affair—an escape from their dying marriages. But as the summer ends and the school year begins, a series of small incidents forces all involved to examine their lives and convictions.
One of the best things about the film is that it never degrades itself by plunging into mawkish and generalized statements about contemporary life. It’s pitiless to its characters and thus its depiction of garden-variety suffering is rendered palpable and compelling. This is emphasized by the remarkable performances.
Krause, so good on Six Feet Under, is superb as the narcissistic Hank. Watts, quickly becoming a steely and adventurous actress of sizeable luminosity, is heartbreaking as Edith, while Ruffalo delivers his most faceted and impressive work since his astonishing performance in You Can Count on Me. But it is Dern, at once vulnerable and furious, beguiling and pathetic, who wholly inhabits her character.
Curran’s direction is also impressive. Subtle, yet supple and filled with beautiful, elegant moments of silence, Curran’s work is both spare and rigorous. Special notice also must be given to Michael Convertino’s excellent, melancholic score that recalls the great works of ’70s composers Luciano Cilio, Franco Battiato, and Terry Riley.
We Don’t Live Here Anymore left me shaken and morose. Like Lilya 4-Ever, Spider, or Short Cuts, it’s not any easy film to watch, but undeniably a work of cinematic intelligence and fervor.