Marriage Story: Finding Life in Suffering

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– By Matthew Sawczyn –

Religious or not, a broken marriage may be one of life’s most painful tragedies. Each circumstance is different of course, but actor William Shatner might not have been far off when he said, “Divorce is probably as painful as death.” You will find a sea of quotes on the topic, if you go searching: inspirational ones, witty ones, heart-breaking ones, truthful ones. But it is with Shatner’s summation that Netflix’s Marriage Story may find itself most aligned.

Anchored in an almost uncanny chemistry between Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver, Marriage Story centers upon the union of Charlie and Nicole Barber: two very different people, who somehow seem perfect for each other. The film opens on the two monologuing about the other’s virtues, reflecting on all the good things that make up their spouse. It is a truly beautiful beginning.

We soon realize, however, that this marriage has already fallen apart in every practical sense. All that remains now is an official divorce. It is this simple statement, however, that leads to a grueling, prolonged process in which neither party appears the victor (nor would they want to be.) Since when did their marriage become about winning? Set on a track neither seems happy about, Charlie and Nicole begin to battle each other at the behest of their lawyers (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta nail their incredibly despicable roles here, while Alan Alda adds much needed relief). At each turn, the ex-couple falls further and further away from the amicable split they had previously envisioned, leading to excruciating arguments and pain-filled breakdowns.

And yet, in the briefest moments, we see and understand why these two fell in love in the first place. For all their non-communication, there are times when they are completely in tune with one another. Simple acts like ordering lunch, giving a haircut, and sharing a joke carry a well of connection. So much is silently said, as Charlie and Nicole seem to converse on a totally different plane from the rest of the world. I never thought Scarlett Johannson closing a gate would be one of the most affecting images in my mind this year, but these two make it so.

Watching this movie will put one through a gauntlet of emotion. Those who know the experience of divorce firsthand may feel the pain anew. But nowhere in all of cinema has this viewer seen a more honest, more truthful portrayal of the hard sadness of a marriage finding a finish. Adjectives fail the ending, because the ending is probably not what you think it is. Heartbreaking, poignant, moving, hopeful… some ends are tied up, many unresolved. Like divorce, there seems to be no perfect way to wrap things up. Where will these characters go after this? What will they become decades from now? The viewer is left to decide. What I do see is the bud of life in the midst of tear-stained soil.


About the Author

Matthew Sawczyn is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, and alumni of JPCatholic (MBA in Film Producing – Class of 2017). He loves hiking, HBO, and cuddly cats.

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