By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"I think from the outset," LaBute says of Nurse Betty, "I wanted to challenge myself and, by extension, challenge an audience. I saw it as something that on its surface I would never imagine doing, and certainly not writing, and therefore I was intrigued by it. Whether it was calculated or not? It didn't seem so at the time. I simply thought people wouldn't see this coming. Bash had opened, and there was an Owen Gleiberman review: 'What is it with this guy? What is he so angry about?' And it seemed like, well, why don't I just take a shot to the kidneys here and say, 'What do you think about this, then?'"
LaBute doesn't believe his decision was purely reactive, but he doesn't discount the impulse. "No, not at all, not purely," he says, "but there was an element of that. There was also me looking at a screenplay and being charmed by the things that were familiar yet spun in a way that kept it interesting, and an overall tone I had not dealt with before. Could I create that sort of sweetness and not paw it up?" LaBute left the plot and the characters alone, but worked on the dialogue "from one end of the shoot to the other," consulting the original writers along the way. If he felt any qualms about directing from a script he hadn't fully conceived, or worried that it would adversely affect his reputation as a fledgling auteur, he's not saying: "The decision needed to be made quickly enough that I didn't really have time to think about career development. It wasn't a matter of me going, 'Oh, gosh, should I direct only things I've written?' It was just presented to me as 'We're going to make this movie. We hope you do it, but we will move on.' For me, it was probably a bit more of the playground bully saying, 'I don't want anyone else to play with this.'"
"Hold on, I'm having a moment here."
IF THERE'S A NAGGING PROBLEM WITH LaBute's work, it may be that he hasn't yet learned how to control that playground bully -- so far, he doesn't seem particularly interested in even trying. He has a story he likes to tell about the first time one of his works was staged in New York, when someone in the audience shouted, "Kill the playwright!" He has told the story to various interviewers, including to me, and he tells it with obvious relish. Inspiring overheated reactions is its own kind of thrill, but it is an essentially cheap and pointless thrill, particularly for an artist, and particularly when épater les bourgeois just doesn't play the way it once did. LaBute is up to more than his harshest critics allow -- like his best contemporaries, those younger filmmakers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, when American film could scrape against our consciousness, could be difficult, demanding, contrary and adult, sometimes queasily so, he has seen the possibilities of art. But his penchant for outrage, for sensation, for sticking it to his audiences and characters and then turning the blade, makes him a needlessly easy target. Worse, it may limit his possibilities, his very reach as a filmmaker who wants, as LaBute clearly does, to explore the full bloom of human feeling. Stanley Kubrick and Luis Buñuel created art that still shocks, but each did so with the pity and terror that the Greeks, of whom LaBute is so fond, demanded of their art.
The weakest moment in Nurse Betty is a spasm of violence that seems recycled out of Quentin Tarantino's oeuvre; the best thing about the movie, outside of its performances, is its more expansive emotional register. For the first time in a LaBute film, it feels as if the director is working through his obsessions closer to the ground -- closer both to his characters and to us. If it doesn't always sound and look like a LaBute film, perhaps it's ã because we've been mistaken in believing we know what a LaBute film is. Nurse Betty may not be as obviously singular as his first two films, but in some very crucial respects it is a leap forward, especially in terms of camera (the cinematographer is the great Jean Yves Escoffier) and character (from hit men to soap-opera stars). LaBute got a chance to play with a much larger train set this time. ("He said that the first day of shooting was the first time he had done an exterior scene and used a crane," says his producing partner, Gail Mutrux.) "People are saying there's a new language there," says LaBute, that he's gotten freer, more fluid with the image. "But, God, if you compare it to a lot of films, you would think it was very still. From the beginning, I probably went in saying that this story needs a different kind of telling, the tale itself requires that. Whereas these little, very microscopically observed worlds that I'd written myself could afford to be much more clinical."