“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.