Photo by Kimberly French

—What are we doing?

—I don’t know.

—Should we stop this?

—Stop what?

Such words have been spoken by a billion adulterers, back to Lilith and Adam, Adam and Eve, Eve and Lucifer. The beauty is that when we speak them (and adult life condemns us to either speak these words eventually, or choose hard against their being spoken), we do so in the necessary illusion that nothing we do, or say, has ever been done, or said, quite this way before. Yet being human means we all breathe the same universal, delicious, soul-betraying air.

The great accomplishment of the new film We Don’t Live Here Anymore is that it so freshly and forcefully takes the temperature of such treacheries and heroics. Jack (Mark Ruffalo) is a professor at a rural university, enmeshed in an affair with Edith (Naomi Watts), wife of his best friend, Hank (Six Feet Under’s Peter Krause), a rakish, aloof fiction writer who may knowingly have goaded them into getting together. Meanwhile, Jack’s wife, Terry (Laura Dern), looks on in a rage that is by turns vengeful and self-lacerating, wavering between Medea-like storms of emotion meant to crack the growing wall between herself and Jack (yet which only drive him away) and the urge to have an affair of her own with Hank (partly for the pleasure in it, but mostly to provoke Jack).

Writer Larry Gross, adapting two stories by Andre Dubus, has a great ear for the layers of irony and challenge latent in even the most familiar exchanges. The one quoted above is whispered breathlessly by Jack and Edith when the pair have momentarily escaped their spouses, and counterweighted by director John Curran with glimpses of Terry and Hank, who’ve been left behind to float in a serpentine dance with one another. “How could you leave me with Hank?” Terry asks Jack later, probing him about his phony beer run with Edith. We’re snared in a web of intersecting guilts and jealousies: Terry’s radar regarding Jack is up because she’s as tempted to stray as he is, while Jack’s guilt about fucking Edith rouses in him a jealous obsession with whatever may or may not be brewing between Terry and Hank.

These people are so deeply, vitally realized that the intricate suspense of We Don’t Live Here Anymore is excruciating without being at all “plotty.” We’re on familiar human ground throughout, yet the character-driven questions keep burning: What will these particular folks do? Jack, a passionate reader, finds himself mirrored in the prose of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich — not because his death is imminent, but because he feels his mortality looming in the scale of the choices he’s making, an anguish (beautifully enacted by Ruffalo) that culminates in a fierce self-reckoning on an outing with his children. Edith, a light, sweet-seeming sphinx, acts out a secretive struggle in Jack’s arms, a struggle illuminated with startling clarity by Watts in a single close-up, as she evades the gaze of her friend Terry, who stands behind her. It’s as though Edith’s infidelity makes her more real to herself. Hank, playing a ghostly game of God with his wife and friends, is, as Krause embodies him, a fascinating absence rather than a person — a paragon of seductive charisma, feeding on itself. Laura Dern’s Terry is, by contrast, all presence, and as such constitutes Dern’s fieriest and most mature performance to date. She has always possessed a mouth as expressive as an extra pair of eyes, but here it becomes a rictus flashing anger and disappointment at the turns her life has taken.

As Gross told a recent audience at the L.A. Film Festival, We Don’t Live Here Anymore was originally written in the 1970s. That figures, in the best sense: It is worthy of comparison to the lifelike, character-rich films we cherish from that era, and is certainly one of the finest films to come out this year.

WE DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE | Directed by JOHN CURRAN | Written by LARRY GROSS, from short stories by Andre Dubus | Produced by JONAS GOODMAN, HARVEY KAHN and NAOMI WATTS | Released by Warner Independent Pictures | At the ArcLight, the Grove and Loews Broadway

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