Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 21, 2008 2:09 pm 
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LaBute directs, but does not control, this new movie

In this movie starring Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, and Kerry Washington, a mixed race newlywed couple (Wilson and Washington) moves in next door to a widowed LA cop (Jackson) raising two children in the San Fernando Valley. He doesn’t like or approve of these new neighbors and does everything he can to make their lives miserable. Scott Foundas says this enterprise will initially puzzle LaBute fanciers given that its "yuppies-in-peril thriller" format seems "about two decades past its freshness date." But he asserts that this is actually "vintage LaBute" because of its "taut" exploration of the gap "between what people say and what they really think." The trouble is, as Foundas admits, this is LaBute working as a hired gun; he didn’t write the material, and it hasn’t any of his keen ear for the way men and women mess with each other. Foundas admits the movie ramps things up too much and ends with an "over-the-top finale" and a crudely symbolic fire. When you’ve corrected for all that, there's really not much left that's positive, other than the fact that Jackson is genuinely despicable and yet still convincing, and Wilson is especially good, his responses always nicely modulated despite all the hysteria at the edge of scenes. Washington does a very decent job too. Though they’re patently movie actors, all three might have done excellent work in a LaBute stage play dealing with similar material. Only this is not that, alas, and the LaBute potential gets lost in the relatively crude dialogue, the ramped up plot developments, and the cop-out, feel-good finale.

Supposing La Bute had done the writing--how would this have been different, and better? It’s hard to say with any certainty, because he has never dealt with the issue or race before. Maybe Foundas was imagining LaBute lines where they really aren’t. It’s hard to see how people are saying anything other than what they think as he says. Abel Turner (Jackkson) seems to come very close to what he actually thinks every time he opens his snarling mouth. It’s pretty certain LaBute would have ramped up the complexity greatly, and cut down on the overt, non-verbal violence.

Turner’s security spotlight flashes directly in Chris and Lisa Mattson’s bedroom window; their air conditioning power wires get severed; and the garage gets broken into and Chris's Prius' tires are slashed. As Chirs (Wilson) puts it, Abel says "in so many words" that he doesn’t want them living there. Where’s the irony or the hypocrisy? Not in these actions or Abel’s words.

Turner’s mean to his two kids, and on the job he’s also a brute who breaks a black suspect’s ribs and tries to get him to shoot himself. He’s just as racist and a lot cruder toward a drug dealer in the ’hood who he uses and abuses. It’s hard to see any complexity in Turner, other than the fact that Jackson tones down his viciousness just enough to keep it from becoming utterly shrill in every scene.

Not that it’s un-LaBute-like, but Turner doesn’t hate Chris Mattson just for racial reasons, because he doesn’t like a white man married to a black woman, though there is certainly that. He pulls out the cliches, like "are you man enough?" He also hates Chris because he’s a Prius-driving, secretly cigarette-smoking, tree-hugging environmentalist. Turner doesn’t believe in global warming. He hates Chris because he went to Berkeley, and because he listens to hiphop. "You can listen to that noise all night long," he says, "but when you wake up in the morning, you’ll still be white." He hates the music, and even more he hates Chris for listening to it. True, there are moments when he invites Chris in to a party, or buys him a drink at a bar, but these are only lures to trap and humiliate him. Where is he pretending to be anything other than a man full of hate? Not to himself, surely; and there’s no evidence that he ever fools his new neighbors.

The stress they’re under causes things to become tense between Chris and Lisa, and this is focused upon her desire to have a baby right away; he wants to wait. They’ve just moved south for him to lead a new branch of a grocery company. This--surprisingly since it is a glamorous looking three-bedroom house with a generous sized pool--is just a starter home--the first time they’ve owned property. So he wants to wait. She doesn’t. This is another issue the real LaBute, the one who writes brilliant plays, might have brought to a head. The screenplay is wimpy about all this, making Chris raise his voice and express doubts ("I don’t know who you are any more") to Lisa in one scene when he realizes she deliberately stopped taking her birth control pills and pretends just to have missed a few days, but the movie goes for a feel-good ending for the couple, so it can’t do the nasty twists and turns any couple in a LaBute play would perform, which don’t lead to feel-good endings. The relationship between a white man and a black woman who love each other, but must confront their own prejudices when they encounter the stresses of being an interracial couple--that would be a whole new kind of challenge that it would be facinating to see LaBute deal with in one of his plays. It doesn’t really happen here. This movie is about Turner, and the terror he wrecks. It’s about actions, not the words that would show forth how this kind of couple confronts its hidden secrets.

No, this isn’t "vintage LaBute" at all. It’s rather a tantalizing hint of a LaBute subject, which (as Foundas notes) has no subtlety in the direction--though Mamet isn’t as limited a film director as Foundas says--and also lacks the vernacular richness and moral complexity of a real LaBute play.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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