When filmmakers find themselves in a rough place, they tend to dial back their productions, usually by necessity, but also as a refresher course in refueling the creative spirit. Playwright Neil LaBute has had a rough go of it in his last few big-screen adventures: “Lakeview Terrace” was a half-baked contemporary thriller clearly made to fill the personal coffers, though one could argue it reflected an intriguing take on contemporary race relations in suburban communities. And remaking “Death At A Funeral” nearly shot-for-shot was always going to be a thankless task. The fact that these two films followed the misunderstood-but-still-questionable “Wicker Man” remake seems to point to a creative force in decline, at least onscreen — LaBute remains active in the world of shorts and stage, where his reputation has yet to be sullied.
Now LaBute returns with “Some Velvet Morning,” and it’s as stripped-down as a testy night off Broadway. Only two actors appear in the film, which seems to utilize real-time in depicting a relationship that has apparently moved at a different pace for two people. Velvet (Alice Eve) is lounging in her gorgeous two-floor brownstone when she finds an unexpected visitor — former lover Fred (Stanley Tucci) is at her doorstep, holding a number of suitcases and bags. What underlines the various exchanges between these two isn’t what’s said, but what’s unsaid: Fred assumes that Velvet has been waiting for the moment that he would leave his wife. What her pile of ellipses and darting eyes suggest is that she absolutely hasn’t.
A four-year disappearance has led Fred to assume that his middle-age stubble and talky aggression has kept him on Velvet’s mind. This vanity doesn’t seem to address the age difference between the two of them, as Velvet has been seeing a variety of men, keeping single and busy while Fred has plotted the moment where he would abandon his wife while she shopped, an approach he notes is “like a coward.” While she’s been fluid, he’s been stuck, and the rush of emotions hasn’t returned. Rather, Fred’s belligerence presents a very serious issue, as Velvet tries to find a civil way to kick him out.
The chess game that ensues is nothing if not theatrical, but LaBute knows exactly how to maximize the actors’ performances without sitting the camera on a tripod and leaving the room. Velvet’s home is conspicuously huge, even though, at first, we don’t know exactly what she does, but LaBute keeps it claustrophobic as if Fred was climbing up the walls, threatening to envelope her in his own self-absorption. Tucci has created a uniquely unpleasant personality here, a man who feels he has to mention that he has no capability for violence before it’s even been brought up. We all know a guy like Fred, a nuisance who wants a medal whenever he does the right thing: early on, Tucci maps out so much of this character’s past by saying that, “for once” he is being selfish.
What ensues between the two of them is brutish, mostly instigated by Fred settling in and staying put: Velvet can’t seem to pry herself away from him as he ends every conversation with a variation of, “Well, wait, one more question.” LaBute is adding another monstrous jerk to his collection of male aggressors, with Fred revealing that his interests in Velvet have always been driven by carnal desires. Eve, by now a prolific actress in a series of eye-candy roles, gets the rare challenging role that allows her to reveal the depth she likely won’t show in this summer’s blockbuster “Star Trek Into Darkness“: you get the sense LaBute wants us to question Velvet just as much as it demonizes Fred, but she seems to be doing a manageable job of caging this animal without feeding it. While Tucci lets Fred act out his grandstanding, verbose asshole, Velvet’s role is mostly reactive: he’s always forcing her to finish sentences, and she’s always begging him to say less.
It’s that wordplay that suggests LaBute has an interest in poking holes through the idea of cinematic couples interacting through threats, sometimes coded and sometimes not. Velvet consistently trails off, restricting her emotions knowing full well how the words will sound; when she says, roughly, “You need to leave, before I get…” he challenges her to finish that sentence. Perhaps it’s inarticulacy that keeps her from saying what she has to say, and perhaps its just a bit of restraint. It’s not a problem that Fred shares: he frequently suggests a perfect end to their arguments would be oral sex. His come-ons are so reptilian that poor Velvet is repulsed, returning to the only weapons she has, rendering him impotent by discussing her other lovers. She doesn’t acquiesce to his request, but it’s not a coincidence that LaBute frequently keeps the camera aimed at waist-level in regards to Fred. And its doubtful many critics will mention this (we are a bashful lot) but in these moments it does appear as if Tucci’s wardrobe is artificially enhanced at the crotch level.
“Some Velvet Morning” builds to a climax that amps up Fred’s physical threat. It’s an interesting visual dynamic, since Eve seems to be taller than Tucci, and he’s not exactly muscle-bound, but the threat is always there. When she begins to punch him, putting her entire weight into each blow, he barely flinches, but viciously grabs her to maintain control and deliver a hard, unnecessary shake. As we reach the shocking end, LaBute takes a moment to ask exactly what the value is in sexualized violence onscreen. It’s a confrontational ending, one that closes with a comma, and we dare not reveal the surprise (it’s a looooong conversation for another time), but its certain to get people talking, zigging hard one way, then zagging another. LaBute has consistently made intriguing, often idiosyncratic films in his career, but he hasn’t made anything this unsettling and unforgettable in a very long time. [A-]