Rare are the films which sweep you away with intelligent drama, spellbinding performances, and involving photography. Marriage Story is one of these rare films; however, it’s in reflecting on the film where it takes the opportunity to flatten you. This film reminds you love hurts, and the film hurts for love – not in the sense of “it wants love so badly,” but it takes massive bullets of many kinds for love’s sake.
Marriage can be likened to a highway, one which a couple travels blithe and bonny for most of it. Sometimes, there’s roadwork which delays and annoys you, but you get past it eventually. Other times, you might take an exit or two off to grab a bite to eat somewhere, but the road is still waiting for you to get back on and drive again. But sometimes, the road just ends with no easy way to divest from it, and this is where we find Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson). Trouble is, they’ve got a kid in the backseat now, lovable 8-year-old Henry (Azhy Robertson).
Divorce is a messy, horrible thing, no matter if you have the best intentions toward the other. Charlie and Nicole, by and large, have a respect and affinity for each other, but each wants things the other can’t or refuses to provide; this lack of compromise has blocked the marriage impassably. Yet, there’s this desperate attempt to hang on for love, mostly on Charlie’s part; he wants to work this out, but on his terms. He’s a New York City theater director, but he can’t stop directing at the stage door. He continues to try to make everything just so, whether for the best or for his own ends.
Opposite him, Nicole has given up a possible life in Hollywood to be with this “bear” of a man who stole her heart away from her betrothed. The promise of a return to work in Los Angeles – where she grew up, where she and Charlie were married, and where Henry was born – has gone unfulfilled, and Charlie can’t see past the end of his own nose as far as what Nicole wants. There is love, but it’s not possible for Nicole to work or live like this, under Charlie’s aegis and not being able to forge her own path. The decision to divorce is an amicable one, but the inclusion of lawyers threatens both of them and their hope for any kind of friendly parting.
Based on writer/director Noah Baumbach’s own divorce experience, Marriage Story examines how the modern world stomps upon love. By the same token, it also shows us how love can power us through the worst of times, keeping us afloat when there’s no other life preserver to grab when we’re drowning. Baumbach’s script thoroughly and thoughtfully takes us through various stages of this fatiguing procedure with both Charlie and Nicole trying to put their best foot forward for each other and Henry. It’s heartbreaking to see a family which treasures its members but can’t go any further together.
Baumbach’s choice to leave certain passages portrayed in long, unbroken takes – Marriage Story was shot on film, by the way – envelops us deeply in their struggle. The film makes no attempt to hide its thick blanket of emotion thanks to Jennifer Lame’s careful editing of Robbie Ryan’s meticulous photography. Every bit of pain and regret is exposed, most notably in two sequences close to the end which feature this film’s agonizingly naked, raw humanity. Nothing else adorns this film but Randy Newman’s non-intrusive score used gently in quieter, introspective moments and kept out of confrontational scenes.
These emotions are borne by some of this year’s best performances. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver throw themselves with abandon into this turbulence and give Marriage Story more power than this film can contain. With every hitched breath, tear shed, or word hurled in misguided spite, these two continually flood and floor us with authentic, beguiling portrayals of two people at wit’s end with each other and the process they’re going through. The film’s pitch rises and falls as it should, with not one false or overacted note; Baumbach’s direction keeps them both from straying into melodrama in favor of absolute realism, almost becoming a documentary of a real couple falling apart.
Marriage Story cannot be dismissed as yet another film about a couple facing a crisis, nor should it be dismissed, period. It is a chronicle of the weight of the world crashing down upon a family trying its best to shoulder it. Even Henry has to deal with it in his own child’s manner, having to go with whomever offers better options and withdrawing into his world when things aren’t right. But the focus here is the heart-wrenching devastation wrought upon Nicole and Charlie, two adults whose view of what’s best for their family unit no longer jive. Marriage Story bears power incarnate through its simplicity, driven by a thundering script and an exceptional cast capable of besting it.