Neil LaBute films tend to have similar characteristics. The gifted playwright has a way with words, so his scripts are smart and snappy. He also has an interest in the way that men and women interact and how caustic the battle of the sexes can be. His films are often filled with unlikeable characters engaging in abhorrent behaviors and he loves dark humor, which goes hand in hand with his proclivity for exploring controversial and upsetting subject matter.
LaBute’s latest, House of Darkness, contains nearly all of these elements. The film opens with a man (Justin Long) and a woman (Kate Bosworth) arriving at her isolated country home, which is quickly revealed to be a mansion. They’re relative strangers: they met at a bar downtown, he’s given her a ride home and she invites him in.
Right away it’s clear that there’s something off. Long’s character is an awkward chatter-box who continually puts his foot in his mouth, saying the wrong thing and then desperately backtracking. Bosworth’s character, with her ethereal long blonde hair and white lace gown, looks like she’s stepped out of a period film. Throughout the film, she’s the one in control of both the conversation and the situation.
The film is almost entirely driven by dialogue, not action. The entire first act takes place in a single room and although LaBute wrote House of Darkness to be a film, it’s easy to envision it as a stage production.
The resulting conversation covers the usual territory, including his job, her wealth, and their respective marital status. More importantly, it sheds light on their respective personalities: she is sexy, mysterious, and honest, whereas he is dim, horny and a “fibber.” Truth and reality are significant themes in the intention film; the dialogue repeatedly revisits both as the night unfolds.
To say more would spoil the film’s fun, though not its surprises, of which there are few. This isn’t a complaint: House of Darkness tips its hand very early on and then comfortably plays out exactly as anticipated, with no subversion or deviation.
The result is a dialogue-heavy film that features a handful of actors in an isolated setting. It is also only 83 minutes long, although even that short runtime may prove challenging for some. It could be argued that this is a one joke film: a premise fit for a short film stretched out to feature length. The “reveal” (if it can even be considered one) occurs before the twenty-minute mark, which, for some, will make the remainder of the film feel intimate because it is so obvious.
Genre-savvy audiences will have no difficulty picking up the context clues, but that’s the point. LaBute isn’t trying to hide what’s happening or who Bosworth’s character is. In fact, that confirmation is where the majority of the film’s comedy originates. It’s obvious what’s going on to everyone except Long’s character. He’s too busy excusing the oddness of the situation, his date’s combative behavior and the many, many red flags because he’s convinced it’ll all be worth it to sleep with this gorgeous creature.
House of Darkness isnt interested in being surprising; the film – and LaBute – are playing on the audience’s awareness of the situation to poke fun at how stupid Long’s character is. The litmus test for enjoying the film is simply whether you’re content to (repeatedly) watch a dim-witted man get played because he’s so busy trying to get laid that he doesn’t realize that he’s already screwed.
Audiences who can get on board with this audacious experiment will find plenty to enjoy, particularly the strength of its two lead performances and LaBute’s trademark deadpan humor. Long excels at playing a fumbling moron who’s too busy thinking with his dick to realize – or acknowledge – the danger. Between his floppy hair and his generic office attire, this character is a proxy for every man who’s staked out a bar for a casual, drunken hook-up.
Contrast that with Bosworth, who is a genuine delight. The actress perfectly captures the character’s mysterious, sexy, playingful qualities. Her facial reactions when she’s listening to, pushing back against or trapping Long’s character in a “fib” are very amusing. The interplay of these two main performances – both sexually and linguistically – ensures that House of Darkness is never boring.
The slight premise and talky production ensure that House of Darkness is a film that won’t work for everyone. But there’s also something admirable about LaBute’s cocky confidence: it’s a huge risk to telegraph everything right off the top and then stay the course (It certainly wouldn’t work without LaBute’s incredible capacity for dialogue and the strong performances by both leads).
For audiences who can accept that the obviousness and the inevitability is the joke, House of Darkness makes for a witty, occasionally campy, frequently hilarious date night.