The One I Love Dir. Charlie McDowell

[Duplass Brothers Productions; 2014]

Styles: drama, sci-fi
Others: Puffy Chair, Upstream Color, Computer Chess

The sunlight lazily pours through the lattices of an overgrown white trellis, bathing the guesthouse and main house of a quiet estate far (or, at least somewhat) removed from the bustle and confusion of Los Angeles. Ethan and Sophie, struggling with a marriage grown stagnant, arrive for a rejuvenating weekend couples’ retreat — or so it seems, as they excitedly explore the grounds for the first time. After ruling out miscommunication as the cause of vastly different experiences on their first night, the couple discovers a secret that situates them more in the Twilight Zone than the rural, mountainous beauty of Ojai, California.

The One I Love is the directorial debut of Charlie McDowell, whose previous credits include having legendary thespian Malcolm McDowell as a father, dating Rooney Mara, and having a really great Twitter feed in 2012 that was published as a book in 2013. Though this is his first feature, McDowell has a keen vision for suspense and the subtly surreal, and here tactfully brings writer Justin Lader’s script to life. The feature is bolstered by McDowell’s collaboration with indie stalwart Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus), who executive produces the film and stars as Ethan opposite the convincing Elisabeth Moss, who plays Sophie.

The One I Love is the third film I’ve seen recently in the emerging genre of indie realist science fiction — I’m thinking Carruth’s Upstream Color and Bujalski’s Computer Chess. While those films gained a lot of their mind-fuckery from inventive, high-concept visuals, The One I Love functions as sort of a deceptively simple, hypothetical scenario someone might study on course for a PhD in psychology. I don’t want to spoil it, but this simple turn is responsible for keeping an otherwise bland and amateurish film engaging until the very end; it inverts some otherwise overdone indie tropes in an interesting way. A love triangle — with two people! Manipulating your significant other with love — to escape a psychic prison! Through this one device, Duplass and Moss are able to fully explore every insecurity, desire, and shortcoming of their characters — potently relatable phases of a romantic relationship all having dinner at the table simultaneously.

Although the central conceit of the film is great, it’s very apparent that The One I Love is a first film. The dialogue in the beginning of the film is clunky, a little forced, and on course for a very sardonic indie relationship drama. There is nothing too remarkable about the static camerawork, or the score (though the expert lighting design full of startling contrast and the withholding of a score in the majority of the first act of the film eerily lend a mystical, displaced-in-time aura to the beautiful estate). The budget of the film seems to have gone mostly towards renting such a beautiful location, but the few visual effects, when used, are completely believable and not intrusive. There is real chemistry between Moss and Duplass; their over-familiarity with the other’s annoying quirks seems entirely conceivable. Moss consistently nails her performance with her naturalistic approach. Duplass, although inconsistent, has some great moments with an easy sense of humor, skillfully showing off his charisma and neurosis in subtle but compelling turns.

Looking past its film-schoolish moments, boring cinematography, and predictable final twist at its conclusion, The One I Love is a solid debut that shows that all you need to make a compelling film on a budget is one great gimmick to fully explore. There isn’t much depth or backstory to the characters here, but the circus of emotions is relatable enough to keep us in our seats. Not too shabby Charlie!

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