We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004)

2004-08-06 (Limited release)

I was really cynical when I was bartending. They used to call me “Bitter Guy,” because by the time I was coming to the end of that period, I was really glad to be leaving it — only because you’re dealing with drunks all the time.
— Mark Ruffalo, Salon (6 August 2004)

Jack (Mark Ruffalo) and Hank (Peter Krause) stand apart, exchanging brief nods as they glance down toward their drinks. Both scruffy-bearded English professors in a small college town, they’re bored and drained, off classes for the summer. Hank, being a writer, goes daily to his office to rework his much-rejected novel, and flirt with coeds who happen by his doorway. Jack is even less ambitious and angrier. He’s fucking Hank’s wife.

That would be Edith (Naomi Watts). At the start of John Curran’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore, she’s dancing with Jack’s wife, Terry (Laura Dern), and both are watched by their husbands. Graceful, slender, and vibrant, the women seem to move to music in their heads, as if in another dimension from their men, who look like they’re skulking at the edges of the frame. As they observe, Jack and Hank might think this story is theirs. But it’s not, quite.

Jack and Edith leave to fetch “more beer,” a familiar if feeble means for two uninspired kids to get time alone. As they leave, the camera pauses on Hank and Terry dancing, increasingly urgently, a close-up that simultaneously pushes them to the back of the frame. Here it’s unclear who’s married to whom, who’s pairing off with whom, or who might be cheating on whom. Your first clue that Jack and Edith are involved in anything illicit comes a couple of minutes into the film, as they sit in the car together, and ask one another what they’re doing. Their tone suggests they’ve asked the question before, and never quite answered it. They kiss, urgently but also rather vacantly, and then head back, to pair off with their spouses and end the evening.

While the couples’ experiences are certainly similar, they are also glaringly distinct: while Hank and Edith withdraw, Jack and Terry battle. She is especially raw, aware of his infidelity but also hoping, maybe, that he’ll reassure her, reaffirm their connection: “Jack, you won’t even admit to the truth,” she snipes, truth in itself, as you’ve just witnessed. In fact, when they fight, they do connect: they throw things, they yell and stomp, while daughter Natasha (Haili Page) sleeps upstairs and her brother Sean (Sam Charles) wets his bed.

The movie actually holds off on revealing the kids’ existence until after that first night’s shouting match, so their appearance the next morning casts a whole new light on what seems the parents’ routine excess and ire. “You know what, guys,” soothes Jack. “Grownups fight. Especially married ones.” Terry’s appearance leads nowhere new; she invites Jack to stay with her for lunch, she’ll boil lobsters. As he says no, he looks at himself in the mirror and his voiceover chides, “You petulant son of a bitch. Just make love to your wife and have a lobster.” It would be the right thing. And he can’t do it. When her kids ask her why she doesn’t like desserts like daddy does, she explains it deftly: “We’re different people. We’re not the same. We’re different.”

If this is obviously correct, the film also gives weight, indirectly, to the kids’ belief that their parents form a unit. While the adults’ separate vexations and transient needs serve as narratives for their own discontent, the children’s perspective offers another true enough fiction. The correspondence between the couples is reinforced by a quick glimpse of Hank and Edith’s morning routine, which contrasts Jack and Terry’s in tone (muted rather than raucous), but leads to the same place. Edith dresses for her coming clandestine meeting with Jack; Hank sits silently, pondering… what? “What you going to do today?” asks his observant daughter Sharon (Jennifer Bishop), “Make up stories?” Quite.

Written by Larry Gross, based on two short stories by Andre Dubus (who also provided the basis for In the Bedroom), Anymore is sad and often fragile-seeming, a series of events that don’t quite make a whole. The summer rattles on, the lovers making time for secret rendezvous (they meet at the garage where Jack takes his car to be serviced), the abandoned spouses wondering at their own attractions to one another. The men attend to their books and their laptops, the women to their kids; the men go running, competitive at every turn. Before they trot off, Hank stretches and Jack smokes, William-Hurt-like, then stomps his cigarette into the ground, asserting that he’ll quit this self-destructive behavior once and for all. Hank observes that he’s said this before.

Repetition grants a kind of structure to the chaos in We Don’t Live Here Anymore. Annoying and familiar, the adults settle into sameness, as if too tired to imagine beyond it. Jack and Edith’s afternoons in the woods are pictured as fragments, less intimate than monotonous, an act of childish rebellion (Jack appears repeatedly riding his old bike around town, en route to a tryst or spending time with his kids), or maybe unfocused revenge rather than desire. Jack tells himself he loves Edith, but that sounds increasingly like a deal he’s made with himself, a way to endure the pain he knows he’s making for Terry. Edith tells her lover, “Even adultery has a morality to it,” but this story they tell themselves is increasingly an expediency, a way to make sense of themselves.

Terry retaliates throughout the film, in her sloppy housekeeping and her flirtations with Hank. But it’s only when she deploys Jack’s own terms — betrayal and passive-aggression — that she makes a dent. But when she confesses sex-in-the-car with Hank, her husband flails about for ground to stand on. Feeling guilty over his own moral lapses, Jack claims victimization and loneliness, raging at his wife, “Do not give me your half-assed insights into the soul of a man that you never understood.” Sadly, Terry does understand him, and that’s what most galls and frightens him. He’s grasping at any pretense of control, resisting self-exposure. Like everyone else, he wants to be different.