Married Life (United States, 2008)
In the immortal words of Strother Martin, "What we've got here is… failure to communicate." The truth of that statement lies at the heart of Ira Sachs' Married Life, a movie about how people in a marriage communicate or, just as often, fail to do so. Or, as the narrator puts it: When you go to bed at night, how much do you know about what the person lying next to you is thinking? A good question to be pondered by all, especially those who live in a state of certainty that they know their spouse. The film may be set in 1948 but these issues are not period constrained.
Harry and Pat Allen (Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson) enjoy what their friends consider to be a "good marriage." They provide companionship and support, are solicitous of the other's needs, and don't argue. Harry's unmarried best friend, Richard (Pierce Brosnan), remarks that if he was to take the plunge (something he likens to getting the flu), he'd like to have a union like theirs. But the placid surface hides churning waters. Harry wants to leave Pat. He craves affection and has fallen for a younger woman, the bottle blond Kay (Rachel McAdams). Harry, however, cannot bring himself to hurt Pat by proposing a divorce. He believe she will go to pieces. So he conceives a "kinder" alternative: spike her daily "digestive medicine" with poison that will let her die in her sleep. He even tries it on the dog to make sure. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing on the extra-marital front. When Richard meets Kay, he's bowled over. He sees in her an opportunity to end his bachelorhood, even if it means betraying Harry.
Of some interest is the manner in which Sachs has elected to frame Married Life. With its themes of love, lust, betrayal, infidelity, and murder, and a setting in the late 1940s, this is perfect film noir territory. Or, with its layers of irony, this could be developed into a black comedy. Yet Sachs eschews both of these approaches, opting instead to make the movie as a simple, character-based melodrama. There are moments of tension but, for the most part, this is more about the individuals populating the movie than about the contortions of the plot or the style in which it is presented.
Something that adds an element of uncertainty to Married Life is Sachs' decision to employ an unreliable narrator. The story is told not by Harry or Pat but by Richard, and his perspective is skewed. None of what we see is colored but not all of Richard's commentary can be taken at face value. This device adds a little more suspense to a story that might otherwise have felt too comfortably familiar. There's a fifteen-minute sequence late in the film that crackles with energy and tension and, during this segment, Sachs doesn't shy away from employing standard thriller-type manipulation tactics (the faulty phone line, the cops pulling over the protagonist's car, etc.).
As is always the case with character-centered movies, the actors are a key component to Married Life's success. Chris Cooper, the consummate professional, has no trouble making viewers feel sympathy for a potential killer. He plays the role with such feeling that the inherent absurdity of the situation - Harry killing his wife to prevent her suffering - makes an odd kind of sense. Patricia Clarkson who, like Cooper, has been drawn to less flashy parts throughout her career, is equally as good, although Pat's character isn't as fully drawn. Pierce Brosnan, who has been using movies like this to distance himself from his former superspy alter-ego, oozes charm and sleaze. Finally, Rachel McAdams' Kay is a one-dimensional "good girl." McAdams has a promising career ahead of her and there's nothing wrong with her acting here, but it's safe to say this is not the most challenging portrayal she has attempted.
Sachs' direction is sure and steady. He lets his actors inhabit their parts and allows the story to progress is a straightforward manner, albeit without much passion. There's nothing showy about his direction, but there are times when a more traditional approach to such material can be the rewarding. Married Life has enough plot twists and moments of high tension to keep the viewer engaged, but the main points of interest are the characters. Those who approach Married Life expecting Hitchcock will spend the entire 90 minutes waiting for the MacGuffin. It's not here. This movie remains at a simmer for most of its running time except for those few instances when Sachs turns up the heat.
Married Life (United States, 2008)
Cast: Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams, David Wenham
Screenplay: Ira Sachs & Oren Moverman, based on Five Roundabouts to Heaven by John Bingham
Cinematography: Peter Deming
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics