This fraught, intense drama is based on two Seventies novellas by Andre Dubus, a writer who, like Raymond Carver, was interested not just in the small wrong things we do to each other, but in the way our self-imposed punishments are often harsher than those any just deity would dish out. Jack, Terry, Hank and Edith – and yes, the film does echo period sex trips like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, or Carnal Knowledge – are two married couples for whom the honeymoon period is well and truly over. Larry Gross’ script asks whether they can hang on beyond the itch, and then beyond the scratching.
Hank (the estimable Krause, Six Feet Under star) and Jack (Ruffalo) are English teachers in a quiet New England town. They’re burn-outs, though Hank still strives to write a stillborn novel, and they can muster up a silly but telling competitiveness when jogging. While Hank’s wife Edith (Watts) seems calmly capable, and Jack’s wife Terry (Dern) is fiery and volatile, things aren’t so simple beneath the surface. Jack and Edith are in full-blown affair mode (“I wonder how we’ll get caught,” mutters Edith: not “if”), and soon Hank and Terry are returning the insult, partly through revenge, partly through confusion. All four loathe and fear the fact that they’re sliding into the anticlimax of middle-aged parenthood. They realise the futility of fighting it and each other, but can dream up no other way to rage.
The minutiae of relationship etiquette are raked over, from meaningful lack of eye contact to pillow talk to explosive rows. Obsessing over infidelity and guilt, it often suggests Six Feet Under, and similarly tries not to judge, but there’s less leavening humour, dark or otherwise. All four performances are courageous, with Dern going hell for leather, though Krause and Watts seem more graceful at stepping back from the bonfire as well as hurling themselves into it.
Whereas In The Bedroom – also adapted from Dubus’ work – flattered to deceive, this maintains its temperature to the final knock-out blows, shattering sureties. A fearless, uncommonly truthful film.
By Chris Roberts