Some films you walk into knowing that it will wreck you. That’s how I entered Marriage Story. The Netflix Original directed by Noah Baumbach is a deep dive into a relationship falling apart, the ugliness that comes out of it, and the hurt that people can inflict upon each other. Both incisive and compassionate, there is an empathy in the cavern that builds between our leads Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as the marriage dissolves but they try to keep their family together.
The film itself is straightforward. Driven by its characters, the story is a wound they won’t let heal – the good things and the descent into the bad. Marriage Story opens with each of the characters describing each other. Charlie explains through a narration that Nicole is a kind, messy, calm, actress from LA who gave it up to follow his dream. Nicole explains in a narration of almost the exact the same scenes that Charlie is a great dad, a director at a theater who has a clear vision even when she doesn’t, and that he compliments her in his neatness. Then, these visions of each other that seemingly show the stars in their eyes devolves. It crashes down and the separation is clear.
And when they clash, the passion, the fear, the rage, and the sadness is something that reaches through the screen and jars the audience. There is something to their dialogue, the weight of it all and the sting that their words wield. If you’ve ever been in a fight with someone you love, someone who has hurt you, you can see yourself in their anger towards each other and the meanness they use to cut each other as they yell.
The painful part of the film is how real it all feels. The lawyers, the blindsides, and ultimately, the fact that Charlie hangs onto seeing the good in Nicole until he’s on the verge of losing everything. We don’t know who has the true story and the beautiful part of the film is that both Driver and Johansson’s performances drive empathy for their character and their position. Nicole, who has ignored her own needs to feed the dreams of a husband too busy to notice or too self-absorbed to care. Charlie, who is blindsided by divorce papers at the happiest moment in his career and the resulting fight to keep the rights to see his son.
In addition to presenting these dueling perspectives, Marriage Story places a lot of detail to the inner workings of divorce, the cruelness of it, and how lawyers, there to protect you or attack the former love of your life, complicate it. By casting Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the lawyers in question, Baumbach pushes the story through two forces on-screen.
Liotta, as Jay, is loud, aggressive, and takes up each scene he is in. We see him as too harsh when we first meet him before coming around to realize that he was right all along. On the other hand, in Dern as Nora, Nicole’s attorney, we see a woman with compassion. She’s a lawyer with a heart that is looking to be amicable, only to switch focusing on taking everything she can. While each of the lawyers slings mud at the other’s clients, Nicole and Charlie stare at each other. Uneasy, ashamed even, they exist in their lawyer’s space, that is all. A wonderful choice with two powerful actors like Dern and Liotta.
While it tells a story of falling apart from two perspectives it also tells a story of trying to keep a family together – or at least, trying to keep parents and children together. Marriage Story does this through Charlie who uproots his life to fight tooth and nail to ensure that he is in their child’s life. Because, like Nicole said in the beginning of the film, he loves things as a parent you’re not supposed to love, like getting up in the middle of the night.
That being said, at the end, this is Driver’s film. While Johansson’s presence on screen holds your attention, her red eyes, the way she holds back tears, and the way she fights, Driver’s ability to crumble on screen is what pulls you in. He makes you root for a man who has had an affair and makes you want to reach into the screen and console him. While the film starts off with two equally believable stories, Driver’s performance eventually skews you toward Charlie’s favor.
Instead of maintaining the folly of blaming a single person in a divorce, it’s clear that while Baumbach paints the lawyers as the villains, the ones cause all the heartache, Charlie’s pain is deeper. He loses more and in the end it may just be Nicole’s fault after all. While this isn’t per-say a bad choice, it goes against the very clear picture we’re presented in the beginning of the film. No longer are we in both of their heads, but firmly in Charlie’s, a narrative shift that I am unsure was intentional.
Overall, Marriage Story is a heartbreakingly beautiful film with some of the best performances of the year because of the raw emotions our leads display, more specifically Driver. With Roma, and now The Irishman under their belt already, Marriage Story continues to showcase the ability of Netflix to produce films that deserve award contention, while also making them easily accessible to audiences.
Marriage Story is available exclusively on Netflix.
Overall, Marriage Story is a heartbreakingly beautiful film with some of the best performances of the year because of the raw emotions our leads display, more specifically Driver.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.