We Don't Live Here Anymore

(2004) *** R
104 min. Warner Independent Pictures. Director: John Curran. Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause, Naomi Watts, Sam Charles.

At one point in We Don't Live Here Anymore, the Chekhovian sentiment "An idle life cannot be pure" wafts out of a living-room TV to two married couples leading lives of continental drift. The discovery of Chekhov purportedly inspired Andre Dubus to repudiate novel writing for the short story form; his stories "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and "Adultery" form the basis of John Curran's film, a scathing take on infidelity. Curran and screenwriter Larry Gross gamble with their intentionally claustrophobic pressure cooker by favoring subtext over context; the moderate returns come courtesy of sharp leading performances.

Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause, and Naomi Watts play soul-shocked individuals who can't help themselves from cynicism and lust for escape from their anesthetized existences. Curran opens on a dreamy dinner party for two married couples: Jack and Terry Linden (Ruffalo and Dern) and Hank and Edith Evans (Krause and Watts). Jack and Edith share a flirty errand; their affair, we learn, is barely a secret ("I wonder how we'll get caught," Watts muses resignedly). On their return, fierce tensions break out into passionate arguments, the mere prelude to a vicious cycle of repression, denial, conflagration, and partly consensual wife-swapping.

Gross's provocative script—which won the Sundance Film Festival's Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award—touches on some hard truths about relational failures. For the men, the affairs are attempted correctives to feelings of impotence and ennui; in part, the best-friend men derive their adulterous impulses from an unacknowledged masculine competitiveness. The women stray when abandoned and harshly isolated. Ironically, the affairs in We Don't Live Here Anymore are, if not entirely joyless, certainly tainted by guilt and fear of the inevitable. Though Gross briefly (and therefore awkwardly) indulges interior monologue, the characters' thinking mostly becomes apparent in the various couples' long moments of textless inaction or the roiling fights which characterize Jack and Terry's cauldron of marital enmity.

Deep furrows of blackness distinguish Maryse Alberti's photography of airless living spaces. Symbolic stoplights and references to original sin (like Watts sporting a fig leaf before an illicit romp with Jack) fall flat, but Curran wisely focuses on keeping it real. The script's refusal to illumine what initially attracted these sad sacks to each other in the past or present betrays We Don't Live Here Anymore to be more of a wallow than a tragedy. Watts and Krause's characters, in particular, serve more as foils to Jack and Terry than fleshed-out, identifiable individuals.

The burden, then, falls on Ruffalo and Dern to embody complex compulsions and emote honestly. Even as their equivocal or downright dishonest feints explode into arguments over real issues, Jack and Terry evade the deeper causes and needs so obviously present in their minds. Ruffalo finely etches Jack's tendency to locate the vestiges of his love for Terry in his kids, while Dern desperately tells the children, and herself, "We're different people. We're not the same; we're different." When Terry's doubt turns to definition, Dern makes her new-leaf turn to house-cleaning a shadowy encroachment on her character, a prelude to emotional revenge. Together, Ruffalo and Dern play their notes with symphonic movement.

For each married and adulterer, the center cannot hold in either type of relationship as long as a sense of self goes unresolved. We Don't Live Here Anymore frames with precision emotional moments in the lives of people who build their own prisons and, over time, plot escapes.

[For Groucho's interview with Laura Dern, click here.]

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