When he won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for his first feature, Sex, Lies, And Videotape, Steven Soderbergh famously opened his acceptance speech with the pessimistic disclaimer, “Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here.” That didn’t turn out to be the case, obviously, but his instinct was sound—and not just because his sophomore effort, Kafka, turned out to be a critical and commercial disappointment. Film history is full of actors and directors who started out white-hot, then speedily cooled off. The most fascinating case, to my mind, is Ridley Scott, who would likely be considered the equal of Kubrick and Welles had he tragically died in 1983, having made only The Duellists, Alien, and Blade Runner. That’s not to say that he hasn’t made some excellent films since—I’m an even bigger fan of The Counselor than is Nathan Rabin—but anyone who was a cinephile during the ’80s will surely remember sitting through Legend, Someone To Watch Over Me, and Black Rain and thinking, “Jesus, what the hell happened to this dude? Was he ever actually great?”
That’s more or less where I currently stand with Neil LaBute, whose 10th feature, Dirty Weekend, opens today in limited release. With the exception of his work-for-hire remake of Death At A Funeral (once was enough for that property), I’ve seen LaBute’s entire oeuvre, and its downward trajectory is fairly steep. In fact, it’s hard to remember now what a major figure he cut on the indie scene circa roughly 1997–2000. His debut, In The Company Of Men, was the talk of Sundance ’97, and was deemed the year’s best first feature by the New York Film Critics Circle. Your Friends & Neighbors was less rapturously received, but was still among the most notable movies of 1998 (as well as the very first film tracked by Rotten Tomatoes). Two years later, Nurse Betty, which LaBute directed but didn’t write, played in Competition at Cannes. Yet here we are, at the point where the prospect of a new LaBute picture inspires stifled yawns. Was there any magic to begin with, or was it just a case of unwarranted hype? Let’s take a look at a key scene from In The Company Of Men—the one in which Chad floats his evil plan—and see how well it holds up today.
Right off the bat—and this is especially true by way of comparison with Dirty Weekend, which is mostly set in similarly anonymous public locations like hotel rooms and airport lounges—LaBute’s first film looks much more cinematic than does any of his recent work. This particular scene is about as visually mundane as it gets: just two dudes sitting opposite each other in a tiny booth at a bar, talking. But the location itself has been chosen with some care. Remove the mirror, for example, and the angle on Chad, the character played by Aaron Eckhart, becomes a lot less dynamic. LaBute has composed that shot with Eckhart slightly off-center, flanked by a stranger in a backwards baseball cap to the left and his own reflection to the right, plus usually a smidgen of Howard (Matt Malloy) visible at the edge of the frame. This arrangement subtly conveys the sense of Chad as someone who’s surrounded by a crowd. Howard, by contrast, is shot head-on, and his body mostly blocks our view of the extras behind him. He seems alone. Susceptible. LaBute isn’t making even minor creative decisions like this with the camera anymore. His aesthetic has gone drab.
Still, it’s not as if LaBute was ever especially renowned for his mise-en-scéne. He comes from the theater, and words are his stock in trade. What distinguished his early work, and still plays beautifully here, is the way that he manages to phrase utterly rancid thoughts so that they almost sound reasonable. Boiled down to its essence, Chad’s proposal to Howard is: “Let’s find a woman who’s already suffering and hurt her so badly that she kills herself.” He makes no effort to disguise the plan’s immorality, or even to downplay it a little. On the contrary, he employs the same tone someone might use when suggesting a weekend trip to Vegas. It’s done with such nonchalance that the viciousness doesn’t fully register. As it happens, this is all misdirection, and LaBute craftily includes one direct reference to what’s really motivating Chad—a casual, tossed-off line that only becomes significant upon second viewing. But back in ’97, when the internet was young and the MRA/Red Pill crowd less noisy, there was a certain cathartic horror involved in hearing the ostensibly undiluted thought process of a pure misogynist. Maybe it was the sort of shock tactic that could only be pulled off successfully once. Jason Patric delivers a similarly blunt, hateful monologue in Your Friends & Neighbors, and LaBute already seemed, in just his second film, to be straining too hard for effect.
In The Company Of Men also has, or at least had, the star-is-born factor going for it. Chad was Eckhart’s first notable screen role—he and LaBute met at Brigham Young University—but you’d never guess that from the performance, which practically oozes poise and self-confidence. Just as certain actors (Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy) handle David Mamet’s stylized dialogue more effortlessly than others, Eckhart can put a credible, naturalistic spin on self-conscious lines like, “And then one day, out goes the rug, and us pulling it hard, and Jill—she just comes tumbling after.” (Rewatching that moment just now, I noticed another visual nicety, which may or may not have been intentional, but works well regardless: Chad’s gestures can often be seen in shadow on Howard’s shirt when the camera is on Howard. Not vice versa.) Malloy is also quite good, in what’s arguably the more difficult role, but its nebbishy nature precluded the sort of career-launching buzz that Eckhart received at the time. It’s perhaps no coincidence that LaBute’s declining quality coincides with the point at which Eckhart stopped appearing in his films. (Possession, a literary adaptation starring Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow, is actually pretty good, though highly atypical.)
In short, when I look at this scene, I don’t wonder what I was thinking back then, as I feared I might. It still looks like the work of a gifted writer and promising director, and I’d still be excited to see what comes next, had I not already seen eight of his next nine films and been mostly disappointed by them. If I were to speculate about what went wrong—and why not, since I’m here?—I’d submit that LaBute has gotten kind of lazy over the years, in terms of both form (flat lighting, rote compositions) and content (glib provocation, plots that function solely as a prolonged setup for a climactic twist). Whatever hunger drove him to make In The Company Of Men on a shoestring, and to bust his ass trying to derive memorable images from banal corporate locations in the middle of nowhere, has long since abandoned him. Thing is, though, that’s exactly how I would have characterized Matthew McConaughey’s career (with slight adjustments for acting versus directing) as recently as five years ago. He, too, made a big splash right out of the gate, then got lost in the wilderness. Not many find their way out, but it can be done. I’m still rooting for LaBute.
And no, I didn’t mention The Wicker Man once, until now. Have at it.