The movie "Married Life" is about a man who falls in love with a younger woman and can't stand the idea of causing his wife pain, so he decides to do the humane thing - and kill her.
With most actors, he'd seem like a monstrous narcissist with a God complex. Played by Chris Cooper, he's a study in emotional befuddlement - an innocent.
Cooper is one of those actors who seems a little self-effacing when young but then gets deep and weird, in a good way … in a way that helps us fathom the unfathomable weirdness of being.
Director John Sayles gave him his break in 1987 as a heroic union organizer in the passionate but heavy-handed "Matewan" - which might have killed his career right there. But he did time in TV, and nine years later Sayles wrote him the lead in a better movie, "Lone Star," and by then he'd begun to grow into his haunted face.
Cooper tends to play authority figures - sheriffs, military men, the CIA mastermind in "The Bourne Identity" - and they're often violent. But it's not the anger you register. It's the woe.
That's what makes him startling as the dangerously repressed ex-Marine in "American Beauty," a bulldog whose eyes are moist with sadness over his inability to reach out.
The pain has a real-life correlation. He and his wife devoted much of their lives to caring for a son with cerebral palsy, who died in 2005. (Cooper remains active in the cause.)
As a Florida orchid poacher in "Adaptation," he proved he could cut loose and smile - a huge smile, with no front teeth - and still keep something strange and spooky in reserve.
Over time, his performances have gotten bigger, yet more inward. He was brilliant in "Breach" as FBI agent Robert Hanssen, one of America's most notorious traitors, trudging down corridors with the look of a man trying not to scream while his backside is nibbled by piranhas.
"Married Life" is scary but also very funny: It's a howl to see Cooper paired with Pierce Brosnan, because Brosnan plays devilish cads - everything rolls off him - whereas nothing rolls off Chris Cooper. The joke is that this man doesn't have a clue what's really going on in his wife's head. Yet we see into his. The most hooded of our great film actors is also the most exposed.