When the screening invite for Charlie McDowell’s new film The One I Love landed in my inbox, an odd disclaimer caught my eye. “Please note that no one will be admitted to screenings of The One I Love once the film has begun,” it went. “We kindly request that you abstain from plot spoilers in your coverage and on social media.” This has been the movie’s big bullet point since it premiered at Sundance, spotlighted in the pull quotes of its trailer — there is a big twist, so overarching that when co-star Elisabeth Moss appeared on The Daily Show to promote it, she told Jon Stewart that said twist “basically means that I can’t tell you anything about the movie.” But once you see the movie, all of the coy pre-release hand-wringing doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense. It’s not a film that somehow hinges on explosive surprises; the fact that it’s being marketed as such is less a protective measure for the picture’s delicate fabric, and more an uninspired marketing hook.
None of this is to say The One I Love is a bad film — it’s not. Director McDowell and writer Justin Lader have constructed an inspired cross-pollination of indie romantic drama and Twilight Zone episode, springing from the instantly recognizable woes of a longtime couple who’ve lost their rhythm and are trying too hard to get it back. He slices the opening, expositional scenes razor-thin, introducing his characters and their personalities with a kind of spiky grace. And the casting of Moss and Mark Duplass is inspired; the pair has a natural byplay and a lived-in chemistry, which is handy, as the film is basically a two-hander. Sort of.
And this is where it gets dicey. About all I am apparently allowed to reveal of the plot is that their therapist (Ted Danson, always welcome) sends them off on a weekend getaway, to “give you a chance to reset,” and while they’re there, something very strange happens.
Look, let me be clear here: I like not knowing every damn plot point of a movie in advance. If I had my druthers, I’d see every film cold, without trailers or synopsis or any of it. But the assumption is that if you read a review or watch a trailer in advance, you’re not of that mindset, and what’s odd about the One I Love campaign is that its makers and publicists seem to have conflated “plot” with “twists” and “spoilers.” All we’re to discuss is the set-up — which again, in theory, is a fine idea. But I can’t help getting the feeling that most moviegoers will greet the picture’s “twists” with shrugs rather than gasps. When we hear “plot twists” these days, we think, for better or worse (mostly worse) of an M. Night Shymalan-style reveal that shifts the entire movie beneath our feet. There are no such earthquakes here.
(And at risk of getting comically abstract, it should be noted that there are really three plot points that could be interpreted as twists: one about a third of the way through, a reveal of note in the third act, and then one last turn in the final scene which I guess some could read as a surprise. The first one is plot, not twist; the second rather inelegantly hinges on a bunch of information being left on an easily accessible computer; the third is something you see coming about a mile away.)
But is there even a point to such cloak-and-dagger work in the Internet age, when any spoiler-seeker with a Twitter account or a browser pointed at Google can easily discover The One I Love’s big secret? And if distributors RadiUS/TWC were so dedicated to preserving a virgin viewership, why did they buck their normal theatrical-first pattern and release it On Demand three weeks ago?
Simple: because it’s not about the movie, it’s about the marketing. They’re trying to make the film’s mystery its draw, appropriating Hitchcock’s legendary Psycho campaign with their “no one will be admitted once the film has begun” disclaimer — without seeming to realize that Hitch was responding to the all-day continuous screening cycle of the period, which allowed moviegoers to wander in and out willy-nilly. But context doesn’t matter; it’s a gimmick, all of it, sheer salesmanship. And such a cynical approach ultimately does this fine, modest, thoughtful picture a real disservice.
The One I Love is out Friday in limited release. It is currently available on demand.