Preparing a review of Neil Labute's "Some Velvet Morning," which premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival this week, feels like a losing choice between giving far too much away or misleading a potential audience about what they will see. Labute ("In The Company of Men," "The Shape of Things") has returned to bare-bones, faith-in-humanity-crushing form in "Some Velvet Morning" (his first project set in New York City), which likely would have worked perfectly well as a stage production. But the chosen medium allows for a close study of the actor's faces, which tell a story of their own, even if the story isn't exactly what it seems to be.
Young Velvet (Alice Eve) is lounging on a couch in her exceedingly grown-up New York brownstone when she's interrupted by an insistent doorbell ringing. It's Fred (Stanley Tucci), a former lover Velvet hasn't seen in years; he's got suitcases and great expectations in tow but little in the way of explanations. We soon learn that Fred has left his wife for Velvet, something she might have briefly longed for, four years ago. But for Fred, time seems to have stopped since their last meeting, and he's as nonplussed at Velvet's reluctance to pick up where they left off as Velvet is at finding him on her doorstep.
What follows is a protracted, sadistic game of cat-and-mouse, which takes place entirely in Velvet's elegant home: As the opening credits indicate, there are only two actors in this film. Even as Velvet and Fred's past is revealed in parts, the unseemly backstory doesn't quite account for the odd nuances of their interaction: While Velvet insists she wants Fred out of her hair, she can't quite extract herself -- and as far as we can see, it's not only because Fred won't let her.
Velvet channels Natasha Kinski in "Paris, Texas" right down to the figure-skimming red dress and platinum pageboy; though her sharp, darting eyes are those of a woman far more self-possessed than Wim Wenders' Jane. If Velvet is lost, she'll find her way on her own, thank you very much. But how much control she has over her situation -- generally and in the immediate -- is a gripping ambiguity Labute carries through from beginning to end. Velvet teases the audience as mercilessly as she teases Fred, though always with an air of submissiveness that may or may not be manufactured. If Eve ("She's Out of My League, "Star Trek") wasn't a star before, she is now.
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Tucci, by turns pathetic and menacing, feels tailor-made for the role of Fred, a man stuffed with childish entitlement and almost completely void of self-awareness. On some level, though, he seems to know that his company isn't the sought-after kind and is perfectly happy to bully Velvet, when necessary, into giving him her undivided attention. Off-putting in the extreme, Fred is embellished from a type of materially successful man many of us know: the unfulfilled narcissist who only wants what he can't have and who is capable of cruelty when it's denied him.
Labute once said, "It is part of my makeup to ruin a perfectly good day for people." "Some Velvet Morning" probably won't ruin your day -- it may very well make it. For sure, it will force its way under your skin and, depending on what you think of the big reveal, might leave you feeling like a victim of a cheap shot.
The sucker punch, when it comes, explains one big mystery of the preceding narrative -- namely why Velvet does not pursue one seemingly obvious solution. But it raises more questions that can properly be answered, as the puzzle pieces do not fit neatly together in retrospect. In terms of impact alone, the "twist" is on par with M. Night Shamalayan's best work, but no rapid rewind would have audiences slapping their foreheads in recognition of hidden clues.
And that may be the point. The coda of "Some Velvet Morning" initially purports to reframe the story whole-hog, perhaps with a kinder edge. But some final contextual cues hint that we shouldn't be so sure and suggest that Labute has something to say about ends justifying means. In "Some Velvet Morning," all is not well...