If there’s a reason “Gone Girl” has emerged as a key movie of the moment, it’s because David Fincher’s thriller effectively doubles as a cautionary satire about the horrors of heterosexual commitment — “the date-night movie of the decade for couples who dream of destroying one another,” in the words of Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers. Serving up a particularly bleak vision of domestic hell (call it “The Five-Year Itch”), the film excavates more layers of deception, desperation, resentment and homicidal rage than you’d think could exist between two people who were once in love, all in service of an acridly funny punchline: “That’s marriage.”
But is it really? For better or worse, richer or poorer, the venerable but battered institution of marriage remains an inexhaustible wellspring of drama, comedy and everything in between. And “Gone Girl,” for all its cultural and commercial primacy, should hardly be allowed the final word on the matter. More of a juicy provocation than a definitive statement, it’s but one of many movies this season that, taken together, offer an unusually thorny and thoughtful snapshot of modern marriage — a state-of-the-union address, if you will.
Those who subscribe to the view that “Gone Girl” is a load of misogynist hogwash, firmly on the side of the heel rather than the harridan, may well prefer the more even-keeled he-said-she-said narrative of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.” Ned Benson’s poignant dissection of a couple torn apart by tragedy was initially presented in two feature-length parts (“Him” and “Her”), then truncated and combined at the Weinstein Co.’s behest into a two-hour Frankenmovie called “Them”; in either form, it represents a flawed but principled attempt to achieve dramatic balance and emotional fairness in an onscreen depiction of a relationship.
Something similar could be said of “The Theory of Everything,” James Marsh’s biopic of the British physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane (on whose memoir the script is based). The film presents a complicated and entirely credible account of a marriage marked by staggering intellectual riches and unimaginable physical burdens, in which neither husband nor wife maintains an unambiguous hold on the viewer’s sympathies. We are made to appreciate Jane’s long-suffering devotion and Stephen’s incredible resilience, but we also register the mutually felt tremors of lust, fatigue and wayward curiosity that ultimately pull them apart.
Not every marital drama this season is so invested in the idea of gender equality. In “Force majeure,” the Swedish director Ruben Ostlund takes blistering stock of one family’s ski trip, during which a husband’s moment of cowardice forces his wife, his children and the audience to perceive him in a stark, unflattering new light. Similarly contemptuous of the male ego, Tim Burton’s fact-based drama “Big Eyes” hinges on the uneven balance of power between Margaret and Walter Keane — an artist and a con artist, respectively. Theirs is a marriage of almost fairy-tale-like entrapment, in which an innocent, talented woman is locked away by a man who forces her to maintain a soul-crushing charade for the sake of their American dream.
Earlier this year, arthouse audiences savored the playful narrative conundrums of “The One I Love,” Charlie McDowell’s clever indie about an unfaithful husband and embittered wife who sign up for a most unusual form of couples therapy. Later this season, viewers will have the chance to discover Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan,” an artful, expansive Russian drama in which grim matters of church and state wreak havoc on a household already imperiled by a wife’s infidelity. A missus also turns out to be the duplicitous party in J.C. Chandor’s crime drama “A Most Violent Year,” which broodingly evokes “Macbeth” in its portrait of a corrupt New York businessman on the brink of seizing power, backed by a woman whose ruthlessness far exceeds his own.
Not that pessimism entirely rules the day when it comes to movie marriage circa 2014. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep,” the weighty winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, boldly immerses the viewer in the long, drawn-out arguments of a husband and wife who have lost their spark, but the conclusion is a consoling, almost improbably sunny one. “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s tender epic of childhood, begins with one marriage already in ruins and will burn through two more before running its 12-year course, but the film also gives us at least one committed duo who seem destined for a happy ending.
For the wife and mother facing early-onset Alzheimer’s in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s “Still Alice,” marriage proves a significant source of strength, even when her husband’s devotion to her ultimately falters — his love for her is undeniable but not, in the end, unconditional. The embattled heroine of the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night,” by contrast, can count on her spouse’s unflinching support as she goes from door to door, his words of encouragement helping her to overcome her meekness and fragility as she fights to preserve their livelihood.
Two of the year’s less-conventional movies about marriage are also among its most deeply felt. For the longtime gay partners who finally say “I do” at the beginning of Ira Sachs’ “Love Is Strange,” matrimony proves more burden than blessing, wrenching them apart and forcing them to measure their devotion to one another in long, painful absences and silences. The happily married hipster vampires of Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” spend even more time in isolation, often going whole centuries without seeing each other, but every reunion turns out to be a joyous occasion. “Happily ever after,” it seems, means something rather different when considered from the standpoint of eternity.