In his essay, “The Habit of Writing,” Andre Dubus talks about the joys and demands of what he called “vertical writing,” an intense, concentrated effort to dive into his characters’ souls and to use what he found there to guide and shape his stories. Dubus’s “vertical writing” makes for richly rewarding reading. It also makes his work notoriously difficult to adapt for the screen. To adapt Dubus well, a filmmaker has to plumb deep into the author’s work and find the place where fears and yearnings lie exposed. If the filmmaker finds a way of tapping into that place, he or she still has to find ways of physicalizing it for the screen. Very few have such an easy intimacy with the film medium to pull this off, to alchemize literature into cinema without denaturing either.
Director John Curran and writer Larry Gross bravely attempt to adapt not one but two Dubus stories into an interwoven whole, but it’s clear while watching We Don’t Live Here Anymore that—try as they might—Curran, Gross, and their cast can’t quite capture what makes Dubus’s studies of love and desire so achingly vital. Instead, the movie plays like an inept domestic drama as two New England couples rail, brood, drink, and cross-fuck through the final acts of their unhappy marriages. Jack Linden (Mark Ruffalo) is an English professor who lives with his wife, Terry (Laura Dern), and their two kids. For some time, Jack’s been bumping-and-grinding with his friend Hank Evans’s wife, Edith (Naomi Watts), and covering up his trysts with piss-poor lies whose cracks are now beginning to show. Feeling increasingly neglected, Terry resorts to berating Jack at every turn, and, probably out of her need for attention, has reduced their home to a pigsty.
Contrasted with Jack and Terry’s shambling house is the Evans’s which, in Edith’s hands, glows with a spotless shine. With his bright-eyed, Betty Crocker-ish wife tending to their daughter and home, Hank (Peter Krause), a teacher and writer, spends much of his time staring at his computer screen and hitting on his writing students. Of course, the pent-up emotional and sexual fires that smolder among this foursome eventually blows the roof off their barely contained tranquility: Terry, out of desperation, fucks Hank and, in a perverse, roundabout way to facilitate the divorce he craves for, Jack needles her about it. The point of all this is that we deserve the life we make, or un-make, for ourselves, and that often means we end up alone. But where Dubus resolves his narratives with a quiet, confident devastation, We Don’t Live Here Anymore suffices with platitudes about unfaithful couples, never getting at a deep and distinct understanding of what drives them to unfaithfulness.
The movie is an ensemble piece but, make no mistake, this is Laura Dern’s show all the way. With her thick auburn hair and angular features, she plays the wounded, broken-down Terry with an end-of-the-world fierceness. And, truly, what Terry contends with throughout the movie is the end of a world that she has spent years trying to build. Dern’s Terry is a spitfire, and that only adds to why Ruffalo’s Jack is so mind-boggling. What makes him so acerbic and foul-tempered toward a woman who clearly loves him? And exactly what attracts him to Watts’s Edith, a woman who has all the sex appeal of a piece of cold chicken? Indeed, the sum total of Watts’s appeal hardly compares to a single one of Dern’s stabbing, penetrating looks. Jack and Edith fuck with an artificial urgency—the by-product of two actors who exude no sexual chemistry whatsoever. Because Gross’s script fails to make the case otherwise, the cathartic aspect of Jack’s affair with Edith is never convincing. Jack comes off, instead, as a spineless weasel, fraught with so much guilt and loathing that I found it hard to believe the guy could even get it up.
But the chief culprit here is not the actors (they’re all first-rate) but the script’s lack of a point of view. Arguably, the movie wants to pivot around Jack. Curran even favors him in one brief scene with an interior monologue, but then, oddly enough, abandons it. The interior monologue is an obvious technique, but it might’ve gone a long way to bringing the viewer closer to what is, at best, a despicable character. Truly, every character suffers from Gross’s dissipated approach, limited to ridiculous shows of brow-beating and glib, self-consciously “revelatory” remarks. Perhaps the worst casualty of this is Peter Krause, a charismatic actor whose Hank is strictly window-dressing here. The script fails to dig into his character, to understand what drives his private frustrations as a writer and husband. Krause is left to float along the movie’s surfaces like some roguish, vaguely unhappy ghost.
If anything, the surfaces are where the movie excels. The forested New England milieu, the lived-in spaces inhabited by its characters, their work lives, all feel vivid and authentic. But surfaces are finite and when Curran and Gross reach their boundaries, they drop off into nothingness, having no sense of their characters’ souls to catch their fall. Failing to find the cinematic equivalent of Dubus’s vertical writing, their movie strains for truths it never earns.