Couples Therapy: ‘The One I Love’ Turns Into a Schizoid Hodgepodge

Charlie McDowell's debut feature can't decide what kind of film it wants to be.

Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass star in The One I Love.

The One I Love, Charlie McDowell’s debut feature, can’t decide what kind of film it wants to be. Atonal and aimless, it zigzags clumsily from mood to mood, without any clear direction.

(1/4 stars)

Written by: Justin Lader
Directed by: Charlie McDowell
Starring: Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss and Ted Danson
Running time: 91 min.

At the film’s odd and subdued start, it feels like a comedy. We are introduced to a married couple, Ethan and Sophie (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss), in counseling with a kooky therapist (Ted Danson, of all people) who employs some unorthodox techniques to help them repair their relationship, which was damaged by Ethan’s infidelity. He makes them play random notes on an in-office piano—a bogus indication that their marriage is out of sync—and then recommends they get away to a rural retreat to “reset the reset button.”

In retrospect, the casual fashion with which their therapist makes this suggestion is a warning sign, but they take his advice, and the movie soon veers into horror territory—or so it seems. At first, Ethan and Sophie get along well: they make dinner together; they smoke pot; they appear happy. But the film’s clanky, art brut soundtrack, which is both playful and unnerving, suggests that something is not right, as Miss Clavel might say. You have the overwhelming fear that somebody is going to get stabbed at the country bungalow they’ve driven to; a lot of the movie takes place, disquietingly, in or around a kitchen, where the knives are.

As it turns out, something isn’t right—sort of. Enter psychological thriller terrain: Sophie and Ethan discover, much to their bewilderment, a haunted sort of guesthouse on the property. When each of them goes in it alone, a better spouse, identical to the one outside, is waiting. Better Ethan paints portraits of Sophie—in the style of Degas, he says—and listens to classical music. Better Sophie lets Ethan eat bacon.

Are the better versions aliens? Precogs? Doppelgängers? Clones? Simulacra? Holograms? One of the above, I think. Though when the movie jumps the chasm and transmogrifies into a kind of science fiction riddle, you begin to question what exactly this movie is up to. Ambiguity, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. Still, the payoff of this weak mystery, like a mediocre Twilight Zone episode or a plot devised by Christopher Nolan on Percocet, is unrewarding at best. There is a twist ending, which offers some sort of resolution. But by the end, you will likely feel so tired of guessing what kind of film this schizophrenic hodgepodge actually is that you may already have lost interest.

Couples Therapy: ‘The One I Love’ Turns Into a Schizoid Hodgepodge