Reviews

Married Life

Richard's narration is exceptionally insidious, which makes Married Life at once fascinating and routine.


Married Life

Director: Ira Sachs
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams, David Richmond-Peck
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2008-03-07 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

"Myself, I always thought marriage was an illness, like flu or chicken pox, to which I was safely immune." Smooth and not a little smug, Richard (Pierce Brosnan) observes the marriage of his best friend Harry (excellent Chris Cooper) with a mix of disdain and pity. "He likes his wife," Richard notes in voiceover, while the first few shots of Married Life reveal Harry looking forlorn in his office window, the camera reflected against a snow cityscape.

At this point, about a minute into the movie, Richard's assessment looks about right. Harry professes a certain attachment to Pat (Patricia Clarkson) and claims she would be lost without him. Richard sees the situation otherwise, being privy to information that he doles out sparingly, structuring his story to emphasize its ambiguities and tensions, as well as his own power over it. Determinedly unreliable and conniving, Richard raises questions about most every motivation he describes, especially his own. Even as he asserts that Pat's devotion to her husband is absolute, Richard also dismisses it, precisely because she is a wife. "In truth," he muses, "you can never explain a woman's desire. It's always been a bit of a mystery."

Richard's judgment of his friends, as well as his elevated self-regard, makes his confession to his own unstoppable desire seem a bit of a trick. When he notes that he is, eventually, a convert to the religion of marriage, he marks his change of heart with his first sight of Kay (Rachel McAdams). She makes her grand entrance into Richard's story via Harry's introduction, and in a restaurant scene, recalling Kim Novak's green-gowned, rustling perfection during her first scene in Vertigo. And indeed, where Richard and Harry are smoking cigarettes as the latter confesses his secret affair with a younger woman. On cue, Kay appears across the room, blond hair luminous, smile warm and lovely. She is also awkward and naïve, apparently irresistible to both men. As Richard sees the romance, Harry is entranced. In a scene where they sit cuddled on a sofa, watching TV (a scene that Richard can only be imagining, if that), Harry exults, "All I want to do, Kay, is spoil you, shower you with gifts, just to see you smile." She smiles dutifully: "Oh Harry, you're such a romantic."

This doesn’t exactly make Harry the ideal mate, as he is, of course, attached to Pat. Increasingly anxious about his double life, Harry ponders solutions, eventually coming up with a doozy: because he can't bear to hurt Pat by leaving her, he decides to kill her. Though Richard presents this decision within a temporal structure that has him looking back on events, he nonetheless treats it as an effort to conform to an internalized logic, in which Harry is a victim, caught between two women who want him too much. And though Richard hints that he may be at least a little bit horrified by this logic, he also chalks it up to the problems inherent in (a wrong) marriage. Richard is pictures himself as a solution, or more accurately, a sledgehammer: "I wanted Harry's girl," he pronounces, then proceeds to maneuver a way to achieve his own desire.

Based on John Bingham's novel, Five Roundabouts to Heaven, Ira Sachs' movie (which he co-wrote with Oren Moverman) is a discomfiting mishmash of Richard's smarmy tone, your growing distrust, and Harry's efforts to be cunning. While the film follows formula -- borrowing from Hitchcock most obviously, though also from Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder -- with the murder plot and overripe melodrama the vehicles to consider conventional romance and dreams of domestic bliss. The problem is that the film's precursors, including Vertigo or Written on the Wind, have already done this work, delving into social hypocrisies and repressions.

More to the point, films like Marnie and The Marriage of Maria Braun have looked at the perniciously gendered dynamics of marriage, which leaves Married Life looking a little behind the times. Though Richard's dark commentaries on both the institution and the specific case provided by Harry and Pat are complicated by his apparent lack of self-awareness, the fact is that his version of the story is very familiar. Harry is desperate, Pat enigmatic, and Kay quite alarmingly vapid. Though this makes her the perfect object of desire for both Harry and Richard, it also makes her tedious. Just so, when Kay describes herself as a reader, it's turned into the occasion for Richard's manipulations, arriving at the cottage where Harry keeps her with a stack of books neatly tied with string.

Pat, by some small contrast, does look briefly as if she will elude Harry's possession and Richard's perception, but the moment is fleeting, and framed by suburban housewifely rituals. While Clarkson's performance offers subtle striations of loss, compromise, and disenchantment, Pat's story is fundamentally fashioned by Richard's narrow vision. While he remains baffled by marriage and especially women, he takes his own deductions as truth. "Whoever in this room knows what goes on in the mind of the person sleeping next to you," he concludes, by way of inviting you into his self-preserving ignorance, "raise your hand. I know you can't." The sentiment isn't so deep as his world-weary demeanor suggests, but it does let him off the hook for the damage inflicted by his storytelling. On one level, of course, all narration is a kind of containment, making sense of what's beyond words. But Richard's version is exceptionally insidious, which makes Married Life at once fascinating and unsurprising.

6

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.