The magic of storytelling is not in the bare-bones plot. If it was, Hollywood would have bored us to tears by now; basic themes like love and loss have been told time and time again. The magic is in the way that the classic, familiar tale is retold. Last Night is nothing new; at its heart, it's the tale of two people in a struggling marriage who flirt with the idea of cheating over the span of one night. But The Jacket scribe Massy Tadjedin, in her directorial debut, takes this simple premise and infuses it with such subtlety and depth that it should be a guideline for what separates a tired story from an engaging new adventure.
Lit with warm hues and the shadowy feel of night, the film focuses on Michael (Sam Worthington) and Joanna (Keira Knightley) Reed. The two are living the typical marriage of convenience -- relatively happy, but free of the real passion that keeps couples fueled for years. They are, however yanked out of their bland complacency at a work party. Joanna spots Michael in an intimate moment with his beautiful co-worker Laura (Eva Mendes). Though he's aloof and distant with her, Michael is all smiles and flirty bashfulness with Laura. Joanna confronts her husband after the party, and in a case of typical deflection, he blows her concerns off as jealous exaggeration. That is, until he's worn down and admits that he IS attracted to his co-worker. Unfortunately, the timing is particularly bad; that morning, he must go away with Laura on a business trip.
While Michael is in Philadelphia, trying to restrain his lustful feelings, Joanna is faced with a temptation of her own. While out for a morning coffee, she runs into an ex-fling, Alex (Guillaume Canet). Now both of the Reeds are faced with the passion and chemistry missing from their marriage. As Michael tries to decide whether he should act on his attraction, Joanna faces the man who got away – the too-perfect romantic ideal who always bubbles to the surface at times of marital discontent.
It sounds like a derivative and typical tale of marital morality -- a couple doesn't talk to each other, and lazily lets things get to the point where they both want to cheat. But Tadjedin infuses such thoughtfulness and cleverness into the proceedings that Last Night begins to feel unique. She employs a myriad of techniques to tell the story and to have her characters interact – an action or seemingly irrelevant anecdote being just as important as a straightforward response or bit of exposition.
When Laura wants to reveal her interest in Michael, she does so with a memory about pushing her life's responsibility onto other people, so that she could live freely. When the audience needs to learn how Joanna and Alex came together, a wonderfully blunt and warm friend (Griffin Dunne) mixes brutally honest questions with a gentleness that allows Joanna to be completely revealing. As Joanna talks to Alex about their last night together, she absentmindedly fingers her bag, where we saw her put her phone, as if she's reaching out for Michael to call and stop her from going down the wrong path.
Best of all, Tadjedin shifts the activity from her characters to the viewer. While, yes, there are moments where each couple struggle with matters of fidelity, trust, and commitment, the film also becomes an exercise for how we see things as an audience. No path is clear cut, and just when you think you know how the film will play out, it goes in another direction. It's as carefree as life – not in a suspenseful way, but in a realistic one. Life is not a simple formula of A+B=C, and Tadjedin respects that principle.
Though Knightley might be passionate about her period pieces, she's never better than in modern moments, and as Joanna, she shows a real sense of maturity and presence. In scenes with Canet, their chemistry oozes from every shot. A look or gentle, off-hand touch speaks volumes about their connection. You want to cheer for cheating, because their connection feels so real.
Unfortunately, though he's a bit better than some of his other recent stints, Worthington is still stiff and reserved. It works, to a degree, for the aloofness his character requires, but in a film where subtlety is the driving force of the narrative, stiffness lessens the dramatic effect. Worthington brings nothing extra to his portrayal of Michael. In fact, considering how much Tadjedin revels in creatively relaying the story, it's baffling why he's in the role, when any number of actors could have given the proceedings wild depth.
Nevertheless, Massy Tadjedin has quickly established herself as a notable and talented new filmmaker. Last Night is an impressive first feature, knowing when to savor a moment and linger, and knowing when to retreat and tease curiosity.