The well-explored notion that something's rotten beneath the neighborly pleasantries and manicured lawns of suburbia has proved to be a durable one, if properly tweaked, updated or, in the case of The Details, taken literally and inflated to absurd, Lynchian heights.
In the film's opening minutes, moist, wriggling worms hang off rolls of sod being laid down in the backyard of the Langs, a couple in their 30s expecting their second child and just settling into their 10th year of marriage. Jeff (Tobey Maguire) is a friendly and generous obstetrician, in public a Stepford husband prone to using the word "skedaddle" while privately seeking any kind of release from his sexless and passive-aggressively discordant relationship with his wife, Nealy (Elizabeth Banks). When raccoons begin to tear up the sod night after night, Jeff obsessively vents his frustration by finding and killing the culprits.
But as Jeff reveals in the film's prologue, the raccoons are only one of the factors in an impending and unlikely disaster. Poison, a potted plant, a kidney and a plate of cheese each play their own roles; in exploring how easily and strangely the life Jeff and Nealy have built together unravels, The Details lays out a series of mundane and dangerous objects as signposts -- provocative keys to the film's darkly comedic and tense puzzle.
After a bitter fight with Nealy, another night of raccoon havoc, and a stress-relieving email exchange with a woman he met online, Jeff looks to his psychotherapist friend Rebecca (Kerry Washington) to commiserate over drinks and maybe give him advice on infidelity -- something she knows well from her own marital problems with her husband, Peter (Ray Liotta). It's unclear what Jeff intends for the night; the earnest openness and positivity Maguire brought to Peter Parker he also applies to Jeff, but the actor also shades the character with enough awareness of his own aw-shucks affect that Jeff is sometimes tempted to manipulation, to deploy his honest face to a dark purpose. He sleeps with Rebecca but instantly regrets it; the next day he and his son surprise Nealy with breakfast in bed.
On the surface, it's a cheery, sun-filled scene, and only the slightest hints of guilt and self-loathing escape Maguire's beaming face. By sound, however, it's clear this is one of the most devastating moments in Jeff's life (a rock bottom he'll learn has even deeper reaches). As Jeff enters, the score erupts with a horn section that feels straight out of A Fistful of Dollars, then asserts a creeping, clawing pressure as the camera slowly moves in on Jeff, who's about to realize that deceiving Nealy may be a bigger problem than an ordinary infidelity.
Jeff's lot gets worse. His neighbor Lila (Laura Linney), a lonely eccentric with greater guile (and more cats) than she lets on, loses a cherished pet to one of Jeff's botched attempts to kill the raccoons, and she threatens to derail Jeff's plans to put in a spare room -- and even to reveal his infidelity -- if she doesn't get what she wants. Her blackmail proceeds subtly, and Jeff does his best to play ball with a smile, but the effect of the accumulating deceptions on Jeff's deteriorating sanity is underlined by the insistent, omnipresent score.
In The Details' finest moments, writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes exerts a precise control over tone using sound and performance; in its worst moments, the score and actors overcompensate for weak material. Those elements let Estes get away with often indulgent writing, throwing up whole scenes that don't add texture or conflict.
Such is the case with a series of initially bewildering conversations between Jeff and Lincoln (Dennis Haysbert), an affable blue-collar man who could have once gone pro in basketball but now is near kidney failure. While they play basketball at the gym, Jeff learns that Lincoln is a family man. He's (eerily) entirely sympathetic.
When Jeff decides, in spite of the turmoil elsewhere in his life, to help Lincoln, it's an act of pure selflessness for someone deserving. It's a slow, meandering build to something awful, but when Lincoln mentions his kidney problems, the nearly painful scenes between the two are nearly forgotten.
Effectively immersive, this slyly orchestrated trick of a tale relies heavily on showmanship, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The specificity Haysbert and Linney bring to their characters distracts from a fair amount of caricature, and the irresistible sound design aligns the audience closely to Jeff psychologically as his options grow fewer, elevating the film from a drama of domestic betrayal to a satisfying exploration of keeping secrets and living in spite of paralyzing guilt. The Details has something to say about the destructiveness of lies and deception in a marriage -- just less than it thinks.