There’s a conspiratorial tenor to the discourse about Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love, as critics are driven to conniptions contemplating how to discuss the film’s concept. A quarter hour into The One I Love, the rug is pulled from under you as a secluded couple’s getaway – that troubled spouses Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are attending – is revealed to be something entirely weirder and more intriguing than a quaint country cottage.
While I won’t reveal the twist – one so obviously indebted to The Twilight Zone that the film acknowledges as much – I will say that if you have been “spoiled,” I wouldn’t stress too much. The One I Love is so dependent on its uncanny occurrences that it doesn’t lean on them as “surprises” (and the reluctance of critics like myself to spoil such surprises plays right into the film’s marketing, in any case).
The more I reflect upon The One I Love, however, the more I’m convinced that there’s not a whole lot to the film beyond its Rod-Serling-inspired trickery. The bedrock for the film is a strata of relationship instability, with its sci-fi leanings allowing it to contemplate – among other things – how we idealise our partners, how adult relationships are sapped of spontaneity over time and the sensation of watching someone you love grow apart from you. But while each of these thematic veins might be individually interesting, the screenplay’s lack of specificity saps the story of the deeper resonance it strives for.
You see, there’s nothing to distinguish Moss and Duplass’ relationship from any generic affluent troubled white couple. There’s no spark in their relationship anymore, as much as they try to reclaim it. Their trust in each other is scarred by a past infidelity. All well and good, but where are the details to flesh out these broad strokes? Compare to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which developed a similarly high concept take on romance with copious specific details that made its central couple feel real. I’m not faulting the actors’ work – you can totally buy that they’re in a long-term relationship – but the script doesn’t give them the texture to make the film really sing. I fear those crediting The One I Love with deep insight into such relationships are overlooking such shortcomings.
The One I Love’s impact is limited, but not ruined by this lack of specificity. The Twilight Zone stuff keeps your interest throughout; every time that I found myself coming to terms with what was happening, the film would throw me another curveball. Ultimately, I think the one big problem with the film is that it’s not an episode of The Twilight Zone – a shorter length would absolve most of the aforementioned character problems and smooth over any issues with pacing (the film’s second act is a bit flabby). While the film might not justify the conspiratorial aura it’s accumulated, I’d still recommend it; it’s no masterpiece, but it’s different enough to be worth checking out.