It can be tremendously hard to tell a story that has conflict, but no villain. Not all stories have a clear-cut bad guy — life isn’t so simple — but villains provide a source of conflict that can be easily parsed. When one character is in the right and the other is in the wrong, it’s clear who the audience is supposed to be rooting for, and easy to define the terms of any confrontation.
In the new Netflix film Marriage Story, as a divorcing couple escalates their relationship conflict to painful extremes, writer-director Noah Baumbach could have easily turned his separating parties into a protagonist and an antagonist. But Baumbach has built his career (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, The Meyerowitz Stories) on exploring the gray spaces between overtly right and wrong sides in personal face-offs, and Marriage Story is no different in its refusal to present any absolutes, except perhaps the absolute that love is strange.
Charlie (Adam Driver) is a theater director, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is a former film actress now starring in Charlie’s shows. As the film begins, they read letters they’ve composed, detailing exactly what they love about each other. Their marriage of 10 years seems perfect — until Baumbach pulls back, revealing that they’ve written those letters at the behest of a divorce mediator. The counselor asks them to read their letters aloud, and Nicole, annoyed and embarrassed, refuses.
Nicole and Charlie’s separation grows more complicated when Nicole violates their agreement to not involve lawyers, and their legal representatives shuffle the details of their lives into black-and-white boxes they don’t really fit into. Charlie’s lawyer Bert (Alan Alda) sees the shades of gray; as he tells Charlie, “Most people in my business, you’re just transactions to them. I like to think of you as people.” He’s like Baumbach in that respect, but where Baumbach, as the storyteller, has the room to be empathetic, Bert, as a lawyer, does not. Nicole’s lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), sees divorce as a competition, where Nicole is in the absolute right, and deserves to win as much in the settlement as possible. To share custody of their son Henry (Azhy Robertson), Charlie needs to approach their divorce in the same aggressive, all-or-nothing way, or at least find a lawyer who will.
That forced compartmentalization is painful to watch, especially as Charlie and Nicole seem adrift in trying to deal with it. While they say they don’t want to involve Henry, it’s unavoidable, given their living plans. Charlie protests that they’re a New York family, while Nicole, who was born in Los Angeles, has transferred Henry to school in L.A. while she shoots a TV pilot, and she wants to stay there.
As Nicole and Charlie wrestle with their incompatible hopes — and with increasingly aggressive actions by their respective lawyers — the divorce turns acrimonious. Yet through it all, neither person is presented as wrong. Though the story naturally skews toward sympathy for Charlie, simply by burdening him with more problems than Nicole faces in the immediate moment, Baumbach never lets the scales tip. Whenever Nicole and Charlie are together, the camera never focuses on one of them more than the other. When Baumbach uses a close-up to capture strong feelings in one of his stars, he matches it with reactions from the other, rather than focusing on one single font of emotion. And in their time apart, he follows them evenly.
The whole film revolves around a sticking point that relies on that even-handedness: Charlie and Nicole are separating, but they still love each other. The tenderness they feel for each other hasn’t disappeared, and they will, by necessity, remain a part of each others’ lives. There isn’t one huge, dramatic, catalyzing incident that’s driven them to divorce, so much as a decade’s worth of straw upon the camel’s back.
Johansson and Driver perfectly capture that sometimes-unwilling tenderness, which makes their characters’ eventual anger even harder to witness. The degree of tenderness they share opens them up to equally potent detestation. And as that bitterness and anger is finally unleashed, Baumbach focuses the camera closely on his leads’ faces. He’s built up to this volcano of emotion; while Nicole and Charlie’s outbursts and accusations are startling, it’s also easy to understand why they’re so quick to relent and to forgive each other.
The rest of the cast helps ground the film, particularly Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s mom, who still wants to be friends with Charlie in spite of Nicole’s protests, and Merritt Wever as Nicole’s sister, who’s similarly hapless in dealing with Charlie’s excision from the family. Baumbach doesn’t let the audience becomes as familiar with Dern and Alda’s characters, but they still color in the big picture of Charlie and Nicole’s divorce with mini-monologues on the nature of separation, and their respective viewpoints on how to handle it.
Divorce — or the ending of any relationship, really — doesn’t invite tenderness, or the space to consider that both sides of a dispute might be wrong and right at the same time. But Baumbach takes the time to make room for their opposing viewpoints and experiences, and he creates a richer film for it. Marriage Story is beautifully bittersweet. There are no winners or losers in Charlie and Nicole’s separation, and no heroes or villains, either. They’re all just, as Bert says, people.
Marriage Story is streaming on Netflix now.