Just when you thought Neil LaBute couldn’t get any more horrible, he goes and tops himself in horribleness. The playwright/ screenwriter/ director has created a niche for himself cooking up character studies of unambiguously immoral monsters and presenting them coldly to us on a plate, to all appearances without an ounce of disapproval for their behavior. He came to prominence in 1993 with his low-budget film In the Company of Men, in which two businessmen scheme to toy with the affections of a deaf girl for a joke. Other notorious LaBute projects have included the 2002 play The Mercy Seat, in which a man debates using Sept 11 as a cover for his affair so he can leave his wife; and a 2006 cinematic re-make of The Wicker Man, in which a community of bee worshipping women makes a religion out of hating men.
While LaBute has been called misanthropic, I would say “maybe”. But misogynistic? Definitely. In his new film Some Velvet Morning, we are forced to watch Stanley Tucci’s middle aged lawyer relentlessly torture a young call girl (Alice Eve), at first psychologically, and eventually (just as we feared) physically. The film is what is called in the theatre a “two-hander”, a play that takes place in a single location with only two characters. And this may be the most stage-bound movie I’ve ever seen, trapping us in a house with these two people for an hour and a half as Tucci’s character Fred accosts “Velvet”, his former lover, not permitting her leave. Frustratingly, she makes little effort to escape or get help, and so the tension keeps getting ratcheted up with no relief until the movie’s final minutes. Being trapped with them in this small space is an unpleasant experience to say the least, kind of like Wait Until Dark but with far less entertainment value or comforting artifice. As with most LaBute vehicles, the author leaves us no alternative but to suspect that he is secretly getting off on his character’s bad behavior, because there is no countervailing voice in the drama. The devil does his work; God is “hands off”.
That it all turns out to be a sort of joke on the audience doesn’t redeem the previous 80 minutes of ugliness. I was initially glad to see Tucci, one of our most gifted actors, doing something more substantive than the endless chain of high-paying crap he’s been guilty of lately, but that rapidly evaporated as I buckled down for the wretched ordeal of enduring his irritating, controlling, menacing character for what seemed an eternity. Both actors in the film get high marks for their performances; they’re doing great work. But in the service of what?
But who am I to stop you? If you think it’s thought-provoking to watch some jerk-off intimidate a woman for an hour and a half, be my guest. Some Velvet Morning is available on demand and via itunes today. This Friday(December 13) it will be screening at the Village East Cinema in New York, with LaBute on hand for Q & A afterwards. It opens on selected screens nationally December 20.