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Movie review: "The One I Love" is a phenomenal eyebrow raiser and headscratcher

The One I Love

Rating:
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"The One I Love"-- 5 stars

Stars Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass attend the premiere of their film "The One I Love"
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Excuse my language, but I'm a sucker and a fan of a good "mindf--k" flick. From the subtle to the extreme, I love getting the wool pulled over my eyes and the carpet pulled out from under me during a cinematic experience. They are not always weird niche films and not always horror movies. Some can be romances ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and others can ascend to be blockbusters ("Inception"). No matter the crudeness of the name, mindf--k films are their own storied sub-genre. Blogger Couch Popcorn composed a stellar list of 23 such films in 2012 and added 15 more this year. Digital Spy has a decent list and even a few Internet Movie Database users have chimed in. Take a look and you will see many favorites and know what I am talking about. With the new independent film, "The One I Love," now playing in limited theaters and Video On Demand, we have a new entry to crack into those lists.

In today's day and age of instant information and prevalent spoilers, it's hard for a secretive film, let alone a good mindf--k film where secrets are essential, to succeed. Too often, overindulgent marketing or sniping paparazzi ruin plot clues before a movie even finishes filming. Need an example? Just look at the present stream where everyone who takes even a piss or a sip of coffee on the set of J.J. Abrams' new "Star Wars" films makes social media headlines. Movies get ruined before they even get their full chance. Fifteen years ago, during the summer of "The Sixth Sense" and "The Blair Witch Project," we would have never heard of this kind of stuff during film production that we do now. Unless you are Christopher Nolan, today, filmmakers almost have to go the unnoticed independent route to pull off a true under-the-radar film. Anything bigger alarms the Twitter-sphere of spoilerification.

That is the route taken by director Charlie McDowell and screenwriter Justin Lader for "The One I Love." Both are making their feature film debuts from short film specialization. Produced by Mel Eslyn and her mumblecore genre people who brought you "Safety Not Guaranteed," "Your Sister's Sister," and "Touchy Feely," this film debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and has played at twelve other festivals since then, including Tribeca in New York, gaining more momentum and notoriety. It's now getting its mainstream shot. "The One I Love" is a film I hope finds a wider audience and catches on to more popularity. What follows is spoiler-free and is the absolute most I can explain without ruining a great experience.

Mark Duplass, known to most as one of the boys of FX's "The League," is an executive producer of the film (along with his brother Jay) and stars as Ethan. He's a difficult and straight-laced square of a husband that is watching his marriage crumble around him. His wife is the fragile and disappointed Sophie, played by "Mad Men" star Elisabeth Moss, who longs for the spirited guy Ethan used to be. Their spark and attraction has dissolved, no thanks to hinted past indiscretions by Ethan. Nothing they try works and an frustrating awkward distance grows after each failure.

To save their marriage under Ethan's suggestion, they have been seeing a relationship therapist (Ted Danson). After several unsuccessful sessions, the therapist recommends a couples retreat vacation home that he manages outside of the city in rural southern California. The place is a welcoming and poshly-styled estate, complete with orange groves, a lovely outdoor pool, and a quaint guest house. Ethan and Sophie find worthy enthusiasm at the chance to escape their home stress and relax at a change of scenary. They book a full weekend at the retreat and start out having a great time. It’s here that I have to stop. That’s all I can say.

What follows during the course of their weekend away is a slow-building buffet of coyness, mystery, and WTF provoked thoughts. Just to be clear and give boundaries of safety, “The One I Love” is not a horror film by any means. The R-rating is purely for profanity. This isn’t “The Cabin in the Woods” where gory death awaits every turn. Danger is far in the back seat here and none of the tricks are cheap. This film is more Nolan than Stephen King, more “Twilight Zone” than “Tales from the Crypt,” and way less scientific than “The Outer Limits.” To save the fun, the comparisons stop there, but I hope they whet your appetite.

“The One I Love” is a thinking film that skews much closer to the romantic comedy vein of its trailer, but offers just enough icy and sobering implications to get that hamster wheel moving in your head that will nudge you ever so slightly to the edge of your seat. You won’t be gripping your arm rest or partner’s hand in tension. Rather, you’ll be retreating to crossed arms of curiosity and chin-rubbing intrigue and attention. Clever smiles outnumber dropped jaws.

What I can say about “The One I Love” is that the result is outstanding. Mindf--k movies are hard to write, so kudos to Justin Lader. Sometimes the obscure developments of pitched ideas on paper don’t translate well to film. It’s easy for them to be too “out there.” “The One I Love” holds a good tone of spritely delight rather than taking the easy way out of shock and violence. The underlying musical score from the team of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (“Enemy,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) bends the quirkiness just enough to not be as over the top as an episode of “Lost.” It is a great compliment to say that the ideas involved are more dangerous than the scenarios. That’s an outstanding subtle art to pull off and this film nails it.

Anyone who has seen Mark Duplass outside of “The League” is learning that he’s the real actor hiding in that ensemble of stand-up comedians. I highly recommend “Safety Not Guaranteed” and this film to see Duplass show his promising and immense talent beyond one-up-manship jokes next to the likes of Nick Kroll, Steve Rannazzisi, and Paul Scheer. The same can be said of Elisabeth Moss. Just like the depth of her “Mad Men” character at and away from that workplace, she too is a master of having more going on beyond each and every facial expression. The plot of “The One I Love” requires both of these leads to display swinging differences of nuance and shifting motivations as things get thick and heady. Both performers superbly acquit themselves very well to achieve that need.

Any twist or turn can be the catalyst for a mindf--k film. Sometimes, once you see that kind of film once, the cat is out of the bag and repeat viewing is unsatisfying or even unnecessary. The truly good mindf--k films don't spend their entire arsenal in one sitting. They intentionally choose what to reveal and what to leave open-ended or ambiguous. Such an effect can be a fine line. What constitutes revealing or explaining too little from revealing and explaining too much? "The One I Love" has that kind of measured quality. Some are going to want more answers. Some are going to love the challenge of drawing their own conclusions.

Because of that, "The One I Love" joins the good mindf--k films that beg for repeat viewing. The good ones make you want to watch them again and again to detect more layers, learn more details, or solve more questions. "The One I Love" pushes you and urges you to go back for more clues and hash out new questions and answers. It doesn't play its whole hand and I like that about a mindf--k movie. That's what earns this sly little film my top rating and makes it one of the best films I've seen this year.

Lesson #1: Create, don't recreate, happiness in your lives—The clues are here that Ethan and Sophie were college sweethearts who used to have plenty of youthful and careless fun. They’ve aged now to something more boring. When they try to recreate older things they used to do, they don’t work anymore. Couples, especially married ones, need to evolve with their age and experience. What worked in your 20’s isn’t going to work in your 30’s, 40’s, or later. Always evolve and look for new things to do and enjoy together.

Lesson #2: Finding the most ideal version of yourself or your partner—Continuing from the first lesson, if your relationship spans years, inevitably, your spouse or significant other is going to change in temperament, maturity, attraction, etc. Some couples find that those changes reduce or take away from the man or woman they remember falling in love with. The goal becomes either to regain or maintain those ideal qualities of yourself and your partner. Staying true to your best traits is a hopeful step to never losing that spark in a long-term relationship.

Lesson #3: Trust is the fabric of every relationship— There is a microcosm of conflict within “The One I Live” that dives into the universal thread of trust in a marriage. Trust is the number one thing that either holds together or destroys a relationship. It is a cardinal need that even trumps attraction and those ideal qualities from Lesson #2. For Ethan and Sophie, their trust in each other is already frayed. The events of this film have the chance to either repair what is damaged or create even more tears in fabric of trust.