The Vow is a story about “moments of impact,” specifically, the moment of impact when a careening snow plow barrels into the back of a parked car, sending it head-on into an unfortunately placed telephone pole. The driver of the crumpled vehicle, played by Channing Tatum, is injured, and his passenger and wife, played by Rachel McAdams, is sent flying through the windshield. The husband learns that his wife has suffered major head trauma and the doctors have medically induced a coma to allow her brain to reduce the swelling. It’s all very technical, you see, but when McAdams’ character wakes up, she thinks that the man sitting lovingly at the end of her bed is her doctor, assuming that, in her brain-damaged world, doctors look like Channing Tatum. She forgets the last five years of her life; she is a woman with only half of a past and the last things she remembers are being engaged to another man and attending law school. But the charming and ever-committed Adonis is unwavering and he spends the rest of the film trying to fill in the holes in her memory, to convince this broken flower that they are hopelessly in love and, failing that, he vows to make his wife fall in love with him all over again.
As I watched this timeless love story unfold, though, I realized something: By simply recasting Channing Tatum’s role, the movie suddenly takes on a different tone entirely.
Let’s consider The Vow if the husband were played by, say, Zach Galifianakis. Instead of mistaking him for her doctor, she thinks that Galifianakis is the sketchy ex-convict whom the hospital hired to clean the bedpans. She wouldn’t give him a second look, except maybe to make sure that she was close enough to the nurse’s call button in case he started to masturbate in front of her. In shock, he inches his way to the side of the bed, tries to take her by the hand (though she pulls it away in disgust), and, in that part of every kooky comedy trailer where the music stops for the plot’s ultimate punchline, he says, “I’m your husband!”
She cannot possibly wrap her mind around the pairing—the stunning beauty and the oafish loser. She recalls romantic comedies and network sitcoms with similar duos but it always seemed so unlikely. To help jog her memory, the husband shows her their photo albums filled with pictures of their adorably unconventional wedding, of trips to national landmarks, and of joyful times in the park or on the beach where they couldn’t help but capture their undying love with a sweetly askew snapshot.
“Photoshop!” she screams. “Conspiracy!” This couldn’t be. What must have happened in those five years for her to settle for such a repulsive slob? Is he rich? Is he seriously packing? Nothing short of hypnotism or coercion could explain their marriage. Still at the hospital, she rejects offers to speak with the resident psychologist, and she hasn’t had much of an appetite since waking from her coma. Now, it wasn’t just her muscles that began to atrophy—even her sense of self was fading.
Meanwhile, the husband is drowning in debt. He wishes he could turn to friends or family, but he has none. He has no choice but to sell his impressive Star Wars memorabilia collection to stay afloat. But that doesn’t keep the debtors at bay for very long.
Eventually, he realizes that he needs to do something drastic to save their livelihood. He hatches a scheme to rob a bank—not a major one, but the local branch run by an elderly couple with an equally elderly guard who naps at his post. The next day, minutes before closing, the husband kicks open the door to the bank, wailing wildly, startling the guard to the point of cardiac arrest. Unable to get a gun in time, the man brought the last remaining bit of Star Wars swag—a DH-17 blaster pistol—and sticks it in the face of the nearest teller. “Gimme all the fuckin’ money in this bank!” he screams, and the tellers abide. He exits the bank with a garbage bag filled with stacks of bills, but as soon as he passes through the doors, he hears sirens. He runs, money falling through tears in the delicate plastic. He stops to pick up some of the spilled bills when he hears, “Freeze!” But he doesn’t. Desperate to save his wife, his marriage, and his dignity, he cinches the remaining stacks and runs.
A block away, the sound of a gun firing wakes a sleeping baby. The man drops to the ground, dead of a broken heart—and a bullet in the brain.
The husband gasps and jumps from his bed. It was only a nightmare. The scene provides him with a moment of clarity: His wife doesn’t need financial support—she needs a grand romantic gesture, the kind that made her fall in love with him in the first place.
He rushes to the hospital with a jar under his arm. His arrival scares her, but he makes his way to her anyway. “This. This is our love,” he says, presenting her with the jar.
“This…is dirt,” she says, confused yet curious to know where this is going.
“That’s from our trip to the Grand Canyon. You said that you would never forget the smell there. You said it smelled like earth, like nature, like everything that is pure and good in the world.”
She tenderly opens the jar. The doctor and nurses in the room fall silent. The woman holds the container to her nose and breathes steadily.
“It just smells like dirt to me,” she admits, with a hint of sadness in her voice.
Defeated, the husband shuffles out the door, down the stairs, through the doors of the hospital, and the six miles home to their apartment. Days later, when his wife is discharged and returns home to gather her belongings, she finds her husband dead in their marital bed, his face destroyed by a self-inflicted gunshot, his blood soaked into the grain of the wood.
It takes her less than a week to forget about the portly stranger’s suicide. One time, though, almost exactly a year later, she stops chopping onions to think, a faint memory teasing her.
“Something on your mind, babe?” her new husband (played by Ryan Gosling) asks.
She squints slightly and cocks her head but then shakes it off. “Ah, must not have been important.”