The premise of The Lovers may sound too neat for its own good. A middle-aged married couple, seemingly sick of each other and embroiled in their own long-running affairs, find themselves at home at the same time one evening—an event they strive to avoid at all costs. They retreat to bed, falling asleep turned away from one other, but wake up in each other’s arms, an accident that drives the movie’s plot. For the first time in what seems like years, they’ve noticed one other and embark on a new affair—together.
The Lovers, written and directed by Azazel Jacobs, is a strangely gripping movie mostly because of its aversion to over-explaining. Over its 95-minute running time, viewers barely get any context about the central couple, Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts). They live in a suburb, work dull office jobs that they use to lamely cover for their infidelity, and have a grown son from whom they seem vaguely estranged. The movie doesn’t spell out why Mary and Michael drifted apart, but even more arrestingly, it doesn’t offer a reason for why they’re drifting back together again.
That opaqueness helps drive The Lovers through its slow start, as it lays out the basic parameters of Mary’s relationship with Robert (Aidan Gillen), a frustrated writer, and Michael’s with Lucy (Melora Walters), a more outwardly volatile ballet teacher. There’s a drudgery even to these exciting affairs, as both Mary and Michael are being pushed to leave their marriage and make their new relationships official. But whatever deeper desires the two might be nursing, Jacobs isn’t interested in exploring them.
In withholding such details, The Lovers dodges so many of the clichés of the American indie drama. This is not a ponderous lecture on the soul-stifling suburbs, nor is it a treatise on sexual repression. The film’s sex scenes are refreshingly frank, but not needlessly graphic. When Mary and Michael begin to rediscover their romantic connection, part of the appeal seems rooted in their familiarity with one another. Through it all, a swooning, boldly orchestral score by Mandy Hoffman plays. It’s incongruous with the mundane setting and story being told, but perfectly matches the thrill of Mary and Michael’s new attraction.
The Lovers is a comedy, I suppose, but it’s more along the lines of an Éric Rohmer movie—a complicated meditation on love and sex—than a sweeter American tale of a rekindled affection. As Mary and Michael’s fling continues, Jacobs keeps cutting back to their other partners, whom they assure they’ll make full commitments to soon (the appeal of doing something forbidden is clearly part of what’s pulling them back together). The plot, such as it is, points toward an inevitable confrontation with the couple’s son Joel (Tyler Ross), who’s coming to visit with his new girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula). After that, Mary and Michael promise their partners, they’ll break off the marriage for good.
Of course, things don’t go according to plan, but it’s the last half hour of The Lovers—when the quiet comedy spins into something more chaotic—that really makes the movie click. Joel is a brimming cauldron of resentment, obviously seething over a dysfunctional upbringing. He and Lucy, who seem like nuisances at first, begin to feel more and more like wronged parties. The audience’s perspective, and allegiances, shift wildly from scene to scene. Jacobs doesn’t seem to favor any particular outcome for his ensemble; the film thrives more on its discombobulating unpredictability.
The Lovers ultimately works because there’s nobody to root for. But neither are its characters the kind of pitiable suburban caricatures that can make American indie filmmaking such a chore. Letts (a beguiling villain on Homeland, and a much more sympathetic one in last year’s Indignation) knows how to find the soft side of the most unlikable roles. Meanwhile, Winger’s Mary is no bored, unloved housewife, but a compelling, intense person whose sexual agency is never in doubt. The Lovers isn’t about people waking up to their lives—it’s about a couple in their 60s still trying to figure out where true satisfaction might lie, and leaving plenty of emotional wreckage in their wake. A fascinating tale of domestic upheaval, The Lovers is all the more transfixing because it’s committed to not being a heroic one.