The Moralist 

Neil LaBute, Latter-Day Filmmaker

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000
Photo by Julian Anderson

" . . . it's interesting, you know, how things'll work out. well, not 'out,' i guess, not so much that as maybe 'through.' right? things get worked through . . . or work themselves through, we probably don't have all that much to do with it."

--medea redux, bash: latterday plays


SOME DIRECTORS MAKE MOVIES ABOUT THE world they wish we lived in. Hollywood is filled with directors like these -- women sometimes, though men mostly -- who believe in cascading music and honeyed lighting, narrative arcs and obvious motivation and always, always, sympathetic characters that the money people think audiences can sink into. And then there are directors who make movies about the way the world is but we don't really want it to be. These are the filmmakers who create worlds, large and small, political and personal, that are darker, more bleak, despairing and cruel -- and, if we're lucky, worlds that are more honest -- than those that generally show up on American screens. We usually call these filmmakers foreign, although sometimes we call them independent or noncommercial; inevitably, we call them difficult.

Neil LaBute, the 39-year-old director of two modest independent scandals, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, and the new, considerably bigger-budgeted Nurse Betty, makes films that are routinely called dark, bleak, despairing and cruel. His films are also often very funny, whip-smart and made for grown-ups. Sometimes they are honest to the point of brutality, especially about sex, though there are times when they seem just brutal, even sadistic. The hard part about liking LaBute's work is that the very thing that can sucker you in -- the mean laughs, the unvarnished honesty, the jolting, down-and-dirty bedroom talk -- is the thing that can turn you off. I like LaBute's work, but I don't always like the fact that I do. Is soliciting our worst tendencies -- if indeed that is what LaBute is up to -- what art is meant to do, if art is meant to do anything at all?


"Women -- nice ones, the most frigid of the race, it doesn't matter in the end -- inside they're all the same. Meat and gristle and hatred just simmering. And I for one have had it with their shit, know what I mean? It makes me just want to . . . something."

--In the Company of Men


WHEN LaBUTE'S FIRST FILM, IN THE COMPANY of Men, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997, you couldn't just feel the electricity crackling through the stale theater air, you could all but hear the audience sigh -- finally, a movie about something. Shot for $25,000, the film traces the merciless machinations of two white-collar men who, mainly for kicks and perhaps for revenge, casually conspire to humiliate a deaf woman who works in their office, much as Leopold and Loeb once colluded on murder. Caustically funny and obvious, it was the hit of the festival and won LaBute the Filmmakers Trophy. The reviews coming out of Sundance that year were ecstatic, prophetic; by the end of the year he had secured the New York Film Critics Award for Best First Feature. One of the first cinematic references that critics invoked was Stanley Kubrick, who throughout his filmmaking life was accused, much as LaBute has since been accused, of deploying an almost gleeful sadism toward his characters and audiences both.

As unnerving as it is to be labeled a sadist, it's arguably worse to be compared to one of the gods of cinema. LaBute has yet to persuade the whole of the film world that he is worthy of comparison to Kubrick. At the same time, there is no doubt that his is one of the most exciting filmmaking voices to emerge in the past few years. Along with Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Tim Burton, Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, David Fincher, Kevin Smith, David O. Russell and that great hope of our commercial cinema, Steven Soderbergh, LaBute helps form the small, core group of promising, forward-looking, relevant young American filmmakers currently working in the wake of New Hollywood and the first wave of the film-school generation.

During the late 1960s and much of the '70s, a messy, contrary company of men -- encompassing everyone from Hal Ashby to Bob Rafelson, Brian De Palma to Martin Scorsese -- rejuvenated a moribund studio system as much by chance as by design. In the process, they made careers -- and just as often incinerated them -- with films that reconceptualized not just what American movies could be about (it only started with drugs, sex, rock & roll), but how American movies could look and sound: raw, ragged, real -- or real enough that you could almost believe you smelled the sweat under Gene Hackman's suit jacket.

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