Preserving the mysteries at the heart of The One I Love while also discussing what makes it such a worthwhile piece of filmmaking can be a tricky balancing act. After all, even revealing the fact that the film slips through the threshold into supernatural territory could be considered a spoiler of what's to come, yet it's the kind of thing that's crucial to knowing what you're getting into with the relationship adventure of Ethan and Sophie. This isn't just another spin on the likes of The Lake House or The Time Traveler's Wife, though: by bringing eerie metaphysical experiences into the process of repairing a marriage on the brink of collapse, director Charlie McDowell explores the tolerance, the heartbreak, the guilt and the desire over an idealized version of one's partner within a fantastical puzzle box. Whimsy is, instead, used as a source of deeper conflict through its thoughts and challenges towards the fabric of what comprises a relationship, and that's all established before things get truly strange in the couple's wild reconciliatory vacation.
Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) are a fairly typical case when it comes to couples counseling: they're disconnected from one another and angry about past transgressions, yet still expressing love for each other in ways that don't seem like a lost cause with some work. After reaching an stalemate in their treatment, however, their therapist (Ted Danson) suggests an alternate, somewhat conventional method for bringing them closer together, whipping out a pamphlet for an idyllic vacation spot. Desperate, they hop in their car and arrive at the cottage, the kind of place custom-made for a relaxing getaway, complete with wide grounds to hike and a close-by guest house (perhaps for space apart during arguments). Shortly after an evening where things seem like they might be on the road to recovery for Ethan and Sophie, they soon discover that the cottage's grounds aren't what they seem, especially the guest house that adapts to the needs of whoever's alone in there.
From the initial scene of Ethan and Sophie attempting to rekindle things while splashing around a swimming pool, The One I Love capably sets up the waning relationship between their personalities, emphasizing both lightheartedness and gloomy uncertainty about where they're headed. Justin Lader's script fleshes out their idiosyncrasies and mannerisms in a very short time through candid therapy exchanges and lumbering attempts at bonding, which is necessary given the story's reliance on observing what makes each of them distinct and appealing to the other. There's a harmony between Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass that taps into the earnestness of a worthwhile marriage gone sour, without the facade of melodramatic proclamations about their desires and needs. By drawing those watching into their headspace, the frustration and the longing for what they once had, the film perceptively showcases the differences in how each needs to change if they're to salvage their marriage.
Then, complimented by an off-kilter, creepy score from Enemy and Martha Marcy May Marlene composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, The One I Love settles into its indie-budget creation of an enigmatic scenario, smartly using the cottage's grounds to establish the boundaries of the fantastical. Despite only featuring two characters and one enclosed setting for the overwhelming majority of the film, director McDowell creates a sprawling uncanny essence throughout the houses' halls with clever rules and a potent purpose, allowing the characters' skepticism and curiosity to react to the guest house's mysterious effects. There's nothing ostentatious about how The One I Love casts its spells: it's all about smart editing and intimate cinematography as the point of view follows Ethan and Sophie's turns in the house, along with attention paid to intuitive details about how each of them embraces what's going on. Expecting answers to every matter wouldn't be wise, though; the film ends up raising two questions for each one it answers, but in a way that enriches the restrained sci-fi instead of handicapping it.
Through the guest house's enchantments, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss manifest into alternate versions of Ethan and Sophie -- appealing, idealized, yet only slightly-tweaked versions -- which opens a door in The One I Love for musings about the nuances of identity, repairing relationships and longing for the past. It's a disquieting joy to observe the differences in how Sophie warms to a more attentive and charismatic version of Ethan, while juxtaposed with Ethan's unease over a seemingly flawless version of Sophie. Here, however, is where preservation of the plot's secrets overrides the capability to dig into the richness of what transpires, how the manifestations impact Ethan and Sophie's reconciliation and what, precisely, ends up really going on in the couple's private time. Jealousy and suspicion take the tone in directions that break free from rom-com conventions, coupled with incredibly bizarre situations of duplicity that guide the film into an emotional maze, deftly fleshed out by the quirk and charisma of both Duplass and Moss.
Later on, though, The One I Love slowly refocuses its eeriness, allowing a gloomy tempo to shape the many other-worldly aspects surrounding the vacation spot into more direct psychological and supernatural suspense. The absence of clarity in certain areas gets superseded by Charlie McDowell's astute concentration on the poignancy of Ethan and Sophie's responses to their developing situation, never losing its equilibrium between the real and surreal while everything slips out of control. All the while, director McDowell's debut feature also sustains a poignant voice concerning the crossed wires and unspoken needs of relationships, funneling into the earned, if slightly contrived, ambiguity that brings the film's themes together into a witty and complex articulation. Compatibility, rediscovering happiness, and desiring ideals over individuality inform The One I Love's higher-concept angle, which, even upon the closest of inspections, manages to keep a few secrets locked up in the guest house. And it's a more thought-provoking film for it, too.
Video and Audio:
Tucked away in a cocoon of trees and dressed with a fusion of classy modern and rustic touches, the house in The One I Love provides an idyllic spot for Ethan and Sophie to have their perception on their relationship restructured. It's the central feature of the 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC encode, a fine digital transfer from Anchor Bay that relishes the high-contrast lighting, natural flesh tones, and blasts of inviting palette choices like sun-baked foliage and soft aqua glow of swimming pool water. Sneaky textures flex the disc's capacity to project fine details -- sweatshirt materials and woven sweaters, wicker weave in chairs and subtle wallpaper, brushed hair and the rims of glasses in close-ups -- while complex shadows deftly project the romantic eeriness of the space with weighty, yet conscious contrast. The beauty of this film comes in how it projects commonplace scenes, to which this Blu-ray presentation does with a steady hand and a careful eye for the balance of dark and light shrouding Ethan and Sophie.
Similarly, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio excels in its ability to grasp the naturalness of the sounds that echo in the houses, from the couple's dialogue to the domestic sound effects that hallmark their experiences. The scraping of chalk on a board, the pounding of piano keys, and the sizzle of bacon present organic and convincing effects across the front channels. Ethan and Sophie's voices are persistently informed by the enclosed atmosphere of the house, while the strong shutting of the cottage's doors and sounds of foot movement through its mildly echoic space are quite convincing. There isn't a lot of surround effects, as one can expect from a budgeted indie, but the incredibly immersive score makes up the difference in the rear channels with well-pitched mid-range punch and energetic sprawl. The unrefined atmosphere and robust music almost make The One I Love its own unique demo disc, but, at the very least, Anchor Bay have done impeccably justice to the film's aural intentions.
Audio Commentary with Charlie McDowell and Mark Duplass:
Casual yet packed with details, this commentary provides a great glimpse at two filmmakers with a great rapport and clear passion for their project. The follow along with the film's events and reveal details about them in systematic fashion -- maintaining a balance between style and function for the film's look and using B-roll footage, the awkwardness of shooting a sex scene among close friends, how much of the fantastical needed to be established and left alone -- while sustaining a terrific conversational rhythm that really feels like they're aware of those who are listening. Jokes and cracked and minute details are revealed about the significance of certain shots, coming across as entirely unpretentious and appreciative of the rewards and challenges of their craft.
Anchor Bay have also included a Visual Effect Reel (2:01, 16x9 HD) that showcases the subtle but effective green-screen work necessary for preserving the film's illusion, though I would've liked for the "before and after" shots to be a little more clearly conveyed.
There's a lot to The One I Love underneath its dramedy facade and concept-driven design, emerging as Charlie McDowell's indie cleverly tiptoes the lines separating genres. It's best to go in with as little knowledge of its supernatural curios as possible; however, there's little given away in saying that the film uses its premise for substantial observations on mending relationships and the nature of personal change, wrapped within a shrewd mystery that's given weight by rich performances from Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss. This is a versatile film, where the frayed edges of logic surrender to the purpose of their wear and tear, a delightful shake-up of rom-com conventions that doesn't shy away from either its eeriness or complex emotional uncertainty. Anchor Bay's Blu-ray looks and sounds great, and it's equipped with a terrific audio commentary from the director and his actor/producer collaborator. Highly Recommended.