“When has love ever been fair?”
It’s official: Neil LaBute is back. I know that’s a horrible thing to say considering he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever talked to in the industry and never actually went anywhere creatively where the theater scene’s concerned, but a decade of watching him direct other people’s scripts (two of which were remakes) can take its toll on a fan. It’s therefore with immense pleasure that I confidently announce Some Velvet Morning is everything I’ve missed and hoped I’d experience again. Whether the biting commentary, less-than-savory and self-absorbed creatures, or pitch-black humor to make you as uncomfortable as tickled, the uniquely acerbic voice I loved proves intact. And despite possessing only two actors inside one setting for 82-minutes, it’s surprisingly also his first original feature screenplay since 1998’s Your Friends & Neighbors.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the man’s plays. In fact, my two favorite films in his oeuvre (In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things) were adapted from the stage. So, whether intentional or not, his stripping down the artifice from bigger budgeted work like Death at a Funeral or The Wicker Man to strictly dialogue and performance was a brilliant maneuver to ease his transition back to cinema. Some Velvet Morning‘s formula isn’t wholly fresh either with a noticeable similarity to Some Girl(s) in its interaction between former lovers about what went wrong and where they presently stand—a 2005 play he reworked for Daisy von Scherler Mayer. The result is familiar territory for LaBute and audiences alike to usher in the start of a renaissance already moving forward with his currently shooting follow-up, Dirty Weekend.
Up to the task early, LaBute’s actors—Alice Eve and Stanley Tucci—breathe life into his potent characters from the first scene of Velvet hearing a knock at the door from a leaning Fred greeting her with a wry smile. Four years since they’ve last seen each other, Eve can’t be blamed for her slack-jawed shock or overly cautious responses to thinly veiled advances for an invitation into her home and heart. Her movements become stilted and fidgety as she repeatedly explains she’s on her way out, almost fearful for what this ex-lover is capable of doing to her with or without provocation. His disappointment in her not giddily embracing him as though no time had passed quickly drives his every move, turning to anger and rage in an unnervingly malicious way her body language only confirms.
From here they freely move around her home from the living room to the outdoor patio to the staircase, upstairs bedroom, and back. LaBute has expertly blocked the interior so that his characters never appear stagnant—something I’m not sure they ever could be once we become engrossed in the rhythm of their words and overflowing emotions. The camera stays in close on their comings and goings constantly so we may witness her strained discomfort and his eye-rolling sarcasm, his desire to touch her affectionately and her jolting stiffly back as though contact would sear her in pain. There’s never a break in their conversation or our voyeuristic vantage point so we must endure their growing pains viscerally and aurally as they alternatingly warm and cool both temperament and actions depending on the topic at hand.
And then Tucci pushes too far, egging her on with an authority he believes he’s entitled to until she breaks her fragile façade and bears her teeth. We learn how they met, where his son Chris fits into their relationship, and what her profession is/used to be/has become since they last met. We know love existed at one time between them, accept it may now be gone, and grow weary as a result of its lingering power being intentionally wielded by in order to gain the upper hand. But no matter how much she fights back and justifies her lifestyle, her friends, or their end, we simply cannot take our eyes off the animalistic force gradually taking over him. And the feeling things are about to turn uglier than they already are becomes unshakeable.
Tucci is unleashed, shifting Fred between adoration, revulsion, and pure malice as his blood boils when not receiving the answers he seeks. Eve is better than I’ve ever seen her, vulnerable and in need one second before torqueing her posture into a woman of fearless strength and vitriol. Assumptions to her being a prostitute lose the haze of doubt as ideas of pure love on his part start to appear less reciprocating than capitalistic. We worry for her wellbeing as tears flow and confidence shatters in front of his domineering physicality and wonder at his silent introspection when she hits her target during one of many exchanges meant to defend whom she is without regret. And just as we think tempers are merely flared with both acknowledging their boundaries, the unthinkable act we hoped wouldn’t come does.
It’s a brutal climax that says more about our willingness to helplessly watch than it does about the characters onscreen—one of LaBute’s trademarked mirrors into the bile-filled souls of pent-up rage and unpredictability we bury deep within ourselves behind morality and conscience. And if that isn’t enough, he takes it even further into territory simultaneously too manufactured and nightmarishly authentic in its depiction of the unfathomable truth that something might be worse than what came seconds before. This epilogue of sorts will make you question humanity and its limits or lack thereof; to wonder what’s real until the reality that everything was hits you like a slap in the face. Victim and assailant merge as motives alter to expose the complicity of vile pantomime is just as inexcusable as the horrors it somehow renders into pleasure.
 Alice Eve and Stanley Tucci in SOME VELVET MORNING distributed by Tribeca Film. (photo by Rogier Stoffers)