For the first few minutes, it's easy to see "Married Life" as an early Alfred Hitchcock film. The year is 1949, and Pierce Brosnan's elegant, mannered narration sets the scene as he and old friend Harry ( Chris Cooper) meet in an upscale supper club. They drink and smoke with a casual, cinema-familiar '40s sophistication as Harry gently explains that he's leaving his wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson) in order to be "truly happy" with his mistress, Kay (Rachel McAdams). The setting, the dialogue, the sense of an easygoing false start to the story, the characters' earnest body language, even the shot sequencing are all pure Hitchcock.
And then with an abrupt snap, director Ira Sachs cuts to Pat talking about sex: how romance is a myth, and relationships are solely about what happens in the sack. With that blunt, modern moment, Sachs pops the soap bubble. Like so many aspects of "Married Life," it seems carefully calibrated to shock viewers out of a familiar frame of reference, while leaving nothing behind to take its place.
"Married Life" is structured like a Douglas Sirk melodrama or a Hitchcock thriller rather than a mystery, but it's a mystery nonetheless, because it's rarely clear what Sachs intends the movie to be. At times, it's archly comic; tinkling music and Brosnan's purring narration give the proceedings a satirical tone worthy of the Coen brothers. But Harry's strange, selfish decision to murder Pat rather than upsetting her by demanding a divorce leads the film into darker drama.
The characters are similarly opaque; the performances are terrifically immersive, yet hushed and unrevealing. When Brosnan's character, Richard, begins pursuing Kay himself, his mild outward affect betrays none of the desire implicit in his narration. And the characters who don't describe their inner lives are impossible to crack. Is Harry acting from misguided compassion, or taking revenge for what he sees as wasted, loveless years with Pat? Pat's own actions are broadly contradictory, making her professed moral philosophy as suspect as Jimmy Stewart's in "Rope." And as Kay, McAdams keeps her thoughts entirely to herself. Is she a manipulative gold-digger or a needy innocent?
Perhaps none of this matters to the story Sachs and co-writer Oren Moverman (working from John Bingham's 1953 novel "Five Roundabouts to Heaven") are trying to tell. "Married Life" is so masterfully controlled that it's hard to imagine any ambiguity being an accident. The gorgeous vintage production design, the little Hitchcock in-jokes, the smoothly crafted performances, and the brutally stifling tension all seem calculated to a fault, and the film looks as flawless and sleek as McAdams, in her Kim Novak-in-"Vertigo" mode.
But there's no humanity inside the film's oppressive, airless shell. That may itself be an intentional commentary on married life, but Sachs doesn't permit any passion to enter illicit affairs of the heart either. "Married Life" is beautiful in every respect, and its murder plot carries a low-key excitement. But its pleasures are all coldly intellectual. Even for the notoriously manipulative Hitchcock, that was only ever half of the human equation.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for suggested sexuality and adult themes).
Running time: 1:30.
Opening: Friday at Loews Pipers Alley 4, Chicago; Landmark's Renaissance in Highland Park; and Cinemark CineArts6 in Evanston.
Starring: Chris Cooper (Harry); Pierce Brosnan. (Richard); Patricia Clarkson (Pat); Rachel McAdams (Kay).
Directed by: Ira Sachs; written by Sachs and Oren Moverman from a novel by John Bingham; edited by Affonso Goncalves; photographed by Peter Deming; music by Dickon Hinchliffe; production design by Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski; produced by Sidney Kimmel, Steve Golin and Jawal Nga. A Sony Pictures Classics release..Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times