Tracy Letts is probably best known to film fans as a screenwriter, especially since he won a Pulitzer Prize for the stage version of the ensemble drama August: Osage County. His screen acting, on the other hand has been mostly small supporting parts, with the notable exceptions of one section of Todd Solondz' Wiener-Dog and a two-year stint on Homeland. On stage, however, he's had plenty of critical acclaim, including a Tony for his portrayal of George in the Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
His role in Azazel Jacobs' The Lovers isn't too far off from that frustrated, embattled husband. But rather than elevating beyond minor skirmishes, Michael and his wife, Mary (Debra Winger), have settled into a cold war of a marriage. The hostilities may be below the surface lately, but they haven't escaped the notice of their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), who warns his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula) before they visit. "They hate each other," he says, "Watch them carefully, and if you ever see me acting like either of them, punch me in the face."
But the predictable train-wreck gets interesting when, a few weeks out from Joel's visit, to their mutual surprise, Michael and Mary begin to have another affair, this time with each other. Soon they're sneaking around, making excuses to their lovers to carve out time for a clandestine marital romp, each unaware that the other is in the same boat.
As with his previous feature, Terri and the television series Doll & Em he produced with stars Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, Jacobs draws us into the sometimes weird and uncomfortable spaces where the lines between social roles get blurred. The story is less about surprising us with what we find, than in getting us to spend some time there with these characters at all. Characters who, in Michael and Mary's case, are brought to life by a pair of consummate actors.
Letts and Winger are each capable of communicating volumes in silence, transmitted solely through shifting facial expressions and body language. Jacobs wisely gets out of their way, letting long stretches of screen time elapse without any dialogue at all. Watching either member of this couple sitting alone, turning over the latest developments in their mind can be as fascinating as any overwrought monologue. And when Jacobs gets them both doing it in the same shot, the superficial stillness masks truly turbulent depths.
I should point out that I say "stillness" here, rather than "silence". The lulls in dialogue are filled with swells of the lush score by Jacobs regular Mandy Hoffman. The music can sometimes seem more appropriate to an old melodrama -- or a Moody Blues album that Michael and Mary might have listened to during their first courtship -- than this intimate indie. Still, it doesn't take long for it to draw you into its own emotional rhythms, which reflect the characters' own.
Is that manipulative? Maybe. It's at least the kind of manipulation that it's hard to mind so much, since it's such a nice ride. The same can be said for The Lovers as a whole. You may not be surprised where things end up, but it's charmingly bittersweet to get there.
Rating: 4 out of 5