'The One I Love'
Mixing together conventions of the quirky indie broken romance with ‘Twilight Zone’-style conceptual horror, ‘The One I Love’ is if nothing else a unique film. It opens by feeling like a movie you’ve seen a thousand times before, mutates into something you’ve never seen before, and then devolves into something you’ve only seen about a hundred times before. Not a bad result from a collection of ambitious first-time filmmakers with more ideas than resources.
An unassuming beginning introduces us to a sad, tired and quirky couple that we know oh-so-well from these sorts of earnest indie comedies (played quite well here by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss). They sit for a therapy session with Ted Danson (yes, that Ted Danson) and discuss how they recently attempted to recreate an early spontaneous moment in their romance by sneaking into a pool for a night of silliness that once sealed their love. This time, the event is just sad. Danson recommends that they head out to a cabin he owns for a quiet weekend away to find themselves. They do, and even have a nice night that awkwardly recaptures what made them a special duo. Then just when you think you’ve got the movie pegged, writer Justin Lader and director Charlie McDowell pull a switcheroo.
When Moss takes a peak in the guesthouse, she finds a perfect version of Duplass who is everything that’s been lacking in their relationship. She thinks he’s changed from the getaway and is thrilled. Then Duplass doesn’t remember that they slept together and finds an equally creepy idealized version of Moss in the guesthouse when he enters. Soon, they realize the guesthouse contains some vaguely supernatural doubles. After initially planning to run away, they decide to stay and experiment. In the best part of the story, the film takes on an otherworldly and queasy tone that explores whether or not couples prefer the idealized versions of their partners in their heads to the real things in a creepy parable. Duplass and Moss do a wonderful job playing both versions of each character through very subtle acting shifts, while the filmmakers manage to straddle two opposing genres without shifting styles. The film feels stylistically consistent as a strange little comedy, even when the tone dips into the realm of light psychological horror.
At this peak, the film works on two levels, exploring the complex dynamics of an adult relationship through gentle comedy and harsh emotions, while also teasing out a genre premise to genuinely disturbing ends. Lader and McDowell also impressively avoid genre clichés by having their characters discuss logical inconsistencies in the concept and react to them as real people might, rather than how characters are required to within genre expectations. Eventually, this juggling act builds to a climax that shoves subtext aside in favor of wrapping up the plot in a tidy manner. It works, yet feels somewhat disappointing after all of the impressive genre-bending that set it up (though thankfully the unexpected coda twists things back towards a complex and cynical conclusion about what couples really seek for happiness).
‘The One I Love’ is a peculiar and wonderful little movie made by a team of collaborators acutely aware of audience expectations and how to subvert them. The movie teases and challenges viewers without ever drifting away from the gently funny and emotionally harsh tone it establishes from the opening scene. Audiences expecting a straight romance or weirdo horror/fantasy think-piece might be confused by how it twists both genres together into something unexpected. However, those willing to follow McDowell and Lader down their carefully constructed rabbit hole will be surprised by the oddly affecting and unique film they’ve whipped up. It might not be perfect, but it’s fascinating, funny, creepy and consistently entertaining. That’s far more than most films achieve, especially debuts.