By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Yet as is evident from his rogues' gallery of male rapists, killers and just plain sick fucks, LaBute's biggest problem isn't with women, but with his own sex. "Yeah," he admits, "there's a preponderance of bad men in my work." One overly reductive explanation is his father, who was absent from home because of his hours on the road, and LaBute avers that "often there were periods of tension when he was around, because he was a very strong personality." But his take on men and women and the space between them seems more complex than this freeze-dried pop psychology. In the spirit of confession, the filmmaker volunteers that his interest in suspect male behavior may spring from his patriarchal church, or may be one of the reasons he was drawn to the church in the first place.
"I was once asked if it could have been two women who plotted together in In the Company of Men," he says. "I said that it seemed particularly male, and what it was was the hunt, which was as exciting to them as the capture. A woman could be as deceptive and harsh, but it would be a singular attack rather than something that was done in that sort of one-upmanship." LaBute isn't a misogynist, but his tendency for letting women more easily off the hook proves that neither is he an enlightened feminist. Two of the plays in bashfeature characters who kill their children. The crime committed by the woman, as well as its rationale, is telegraphed by the play's title, medea redux; the man kills his baby for purely selfish reasons in a play titled iphigenia in orem(as in Orem, Utah). A restless thinker who calls himself cynical and hopeful at once, LaBute is finally far more preoccupied with questions of sin and guilt than with those of gender. "There's been a thread of betrayal through a lot of the things I've written because I think that is the most potent thing that happens between people, and people who profess to know each other well," he says. "Intimate betrayals are infinitely fascinating."
"She wanted more out of life?"
"No, she just wants something out of life."
IT MAKES A FUNNY KIND OF SENSE THAT THE center of LaBute's newest film -- its driving moral conscience, its victim and hero, its bleeding heart and occasional object of ridicule -- is a woman. As the ã emotionally abused wife of another of Aaron Eckhart's memorable shitheads, Zellweger's Betty Sizemore endures a crucible of emotional abuse familiar from LaBute's other work, but she endures with greater grace, perhaps because the director is kinder toward her. The character is by far the most sympathetic in his films, but she's not a thornless rose. There's a sickening undertow to Betty's wholesomeness, to the naiveté that skews sweet, then pathological, and at times makes her the scariest character in the film. It's a dark, almost covert vision of female banality and hollowness -- emotional, psychological and intellectual -- that is absolutely pitiless. As unfair a comparison as this may be, it recalls a story LaBute tells about one of his writing classes at NYU, in which an exercise was to "'write the most disgusting scene you can imagine, the most awful, vile scene.'
"Of course," he says, "you'd get these scenes that people would bring in like 'Interior. Anus. Day.' We went through any number of those kinds of scenes. I knew that the scene I wrote would be perfect if I could just let enough people go first, [with their scenes featuring] the festering back of some awful gnome, you know, terrible dripping oozing kinds of scenes, right? And they get to mine, and it's the most lovely garden party, and it's just women sitting around extolling the virtues of being women. I only wrote it just to poke everybody. To have them go, 'That's the worst thing you could write, that's the most horrible?' And I said, 'Yeah. I couldn't imagine anything worse than a bunch of women sitting around talking like that.'" LaBute may be adept at creating all manner of human monsters to scare us, but you get the feeling that what he finds most frightening is the absence of meaning, in art and in life. Betty doesn't glorify the virtues of womanhood -- she's more interesting than that -- but she embodies LaBute's preoccupations more fully than any of his previous film characters. And if she is also his most sympathetic screen creation, it may be because she is the most autobiographical -- in Betty you see a self struggling to find meaning, in the world and within.
So far the response to Nurse Betty hasn't been as outraged as the response to LaBute's garden party, but the film has raised the question of whether its director has gone off track. The latest issue of the British film magazine Sight and Sound carries the cover line "Has Neil LaBute Gone Soft?" (According to the article, the answer is yes.) It's easy to imagine one of LaBute's own male characters spitting out this nasty double entendre, but it's one that has been making the critical rounds since the film debuted at Cannes. There are some LaBute partisans who are disappointed that the film isn't more persuasively personal. Ironically, the very fact that it doesn't seem wholly LaBute -- the camera doesn't mime the dead-eye stare of the first two films, and the dialogue is more closely tethered to the plot -- may end up bringing the director new fans, including critics who have previously dismissed his work.