RPG, by Tyler Smith
Neil LaBute doesn’t like me very much. I’m not too torn up about it, though; he doesn’t like you, either. And it’s entirely possible that he’s not a huge fan of himself. When it comes right down to it, he really doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of humanity in general. He has devoted his career to telling stories of terrible characters doing terrible things to one another. Oh sure, every once in a while you’ll have a character that is purely a victim, but even that poor soul starts to give off a distinct “chump” vibe, as though he or (usually) she kind of deserves their abuse.
Normally, I would be turned off by such rampant misanthropy, but LaBute writes his characters with such scathing specificity and directs his actors to be so simultaneously vulnerable and ruthless, I just can’t help but enjoy what I’m watching. And at the end of his films, once the smoke has cleared and all the words have been said, we often find a deep sadness. Underneath it all, the hate that LaBute appears to have for humanity is eventually revealed to be disappointment. He seems to want to capture our intense longing for somebody to accept us for who we are, warts and all, while acknowledging that such a thing is exceptionally rare.
His latest film, Some Velvet Morning, boils down the Neil LaBute formula down to its barest elements. Here we have one man and one woman with a history of love and pain rehashing their lost love. There is humor, tension, heartbreak, and even an element of genuine danger. And while one character seems to have all the power, it doesn’t last very long. There is a lot of back and forth, leading to a debilitating climax that LaBute then comments on with a maximum of cynicism and curiosity.
Our two actors are Stanley Tucci and Alice Eve, both of whom perform wonderfully. Not being as familiar with Eve as I am with Tucci, my instinct was to view him as the superior performer, but she shows that she is more than able to keep up with him. By the end, the back and forth dynamic was as invigorating as any that I’ve ever seen between two actors. They imbue their characters with fear and love and more than a little self loathing. They project emotions onto one another, but get defensive when called out on it. They are coarse, yet playful, always trying to find humor in a situation that is positively suffocating. Watching them was, to me, every bit as exciting as a giant action setpiece in the latest Summer blockbuster.
This is the kind of film that actors will want to study, as both performers always play the stakes of the relationship while also giving it a distinctly game-like atmosphere. And by the end we see that this is indeed more than mere atmosphere, as LaBute employs one of his favorite stand-bys. Right at the height of tension, when things are at their most dire, the director steps back from it all to examine what we think we’re seeing.
Some could be put off by the ending, and it’s understandable. But that doesn’t mean that the journey to get there isn’t thrilling and deeply engaging. And, along the way, we are treated to the essence of Neil LaBute as a storyteller. In his film, we have characters that, even when being frighteningly aggressive, behave like wounded animals, scared to trust again but unable to control their need for affection. And we get a strong sense of LaBute, the frustrated optimist; a man with a desperate desire to expect the best of humanity, while understanding that it will always fall short.