Justin Long gets caught up in a seduction game in Neil LaBute’s acerbic thriller
Hap (Justin Long) can hardly believe his luck. Drunk at the bar and prone to delivering corny retorts, he decides to chat with Mina (Kate Bosworth) only to discover she’s susceptible to his booze-tinged charms. While we don’t witness this cute encounter, seeing them in her car as she pulls up in her secluded wooded estate suggests they hit it off. Just because Hap had the guts to offer his chauffeur services doesn’t mean he’d go so far as to invite himself. So he feigns chivalry instead, asking her if she would like to be escorted to her door. So Mina is the one to confidently step up this scenario by suggesting they have a drink in a way that seductively sows seeds for more.
Despite the typography and horror atmosphere of this entry, house of darkness‘a hapless business consultant (pun intended) too eager to be seduced by a beautiful, mysterious woman – who evidently uses him as a toy in a psychological flirting game designed to coax his true intentions – still feels like the one of Neil LaBute’s contemporaries scenarios: muddying the hostile dynamics born of a desire for sexual and gendered control. Using Jonathan Harker’s interaction with Bram Stoker’s “weird sisters” Dracula as a starting point, he concocted a fable for adults that seeks to turn the tables on the inherent power struggle at the center of toxic masculinity. Because if Hap loves a woman who knows what she wants, that pleasure is based on her desires mirroring his.
And from the one-sided gaze of a drunk and horny man, those desires seem aligned. We know better, however. We see that Mina’s smile is less for disarming than for fun. The film embraces this duality. He favors it as a way to push and entice Hap into explaining what he means and acknowledging the error of his ways or doubling down on his superficiality and lying to get ahead in hopes of getting screwed. Mina’s dialogue constantly leads him to self-taught precipices to see if he’ll leap, catching him in contradictions and holding him back to the words he uses, no matter what his intent. Hap loves a challenge. He relishes his foreplay because he feels safe.
It’s an entertaining conceit because Hap doesn’t feel very safe otherwise. Mina is a “rabbit” to him – something she plays by pumping his ego and admitting that he could do whatever he wanted to her if he wanted to. Every time Hap hears or sees something, however, he jumps a foot in the air. So you have to ask yourself why. It’s not guilt. He is quick to tell Mina that morality is not something that interests her. What he fears is falling prey that he so calmly relegates her as the default. When she asks if he’s married, it’s because she wants to know what kind of person he is. When he asks her, it’s because he’s afraid a stronger man will burst in with violent intent.
He doesn’t think he deserves this. When Hap talks to his friend on the phone, he gloats to get even more scared when off-screen noises threaten to expose him. Again, though, it’s not because he doesn’t want to hurt Mina’s feelings; it’s because he doesn’t want to spoil his chances of having something to cheer about. All of his insecurities are laid bare and he doesn’t know what to do. Can he ruin everything? Sure. Can all this be a game? Maybe. Should he be worried if this is the case? Not if they stay alone. that he would have injured Mina is not at the forefront of her mind. It is to know that he could This is. Add another person to the equation and that knowledge diminishes. And Enter Lucy (Gia Cravatin).
LaBute meticulously escalates the danger by providing Hap with his wildest dreams in a way that reveals to the audience how their ability to come true hinges on his losing control. A beautiful woman flirting with him should be enough to satiate his desires, but the fact that Mina provides that attention so readily leaves him feeling immortal. Why not go together? They both have a way of them that makes him see what he wants to see. The way they speak and act in a roundabout way makes him reconsider his way of speaking and acting out of embarrassment. They laugh at him and judge him so they can tell him that everything is fine. They build his defenses to bring them down, pushing him to let go of pretense and be himself.
The fact that we’re in it makes the whole thing more intriguing – we can never tell when the other shoe will drop. It will fall. We know that from the start with how Mina plays Hap against himself with such ease. At some point the ruse will dissolve and he’ll wake up tied to a chair for the real fun to begin, but we can never know when. It can happen in five minutes or in an hour. It depends on how long LaBute wants Mina, Lucy and whoever lurks in the shadows to teach their lesson. And how this lesson will be taught. Anyone familiar with the filmmaker’s previous work should know that his talent lies in acerbic wit and brutal truth in language.
Bosworth shines with these words. She’s having fun, reveling in the growing discomfort of her prey. His Mina recalls the manipulations of LaBute’s earlier work—In the company of men and The shape of things— because Hap turns out to be a willing victim in that he elicits no sympathy from us. Long constantly backtracks as he tries to twist his own words once Mina dissects them, challenging him to choose between honesty (and risking mood-killing) or more lies (giving him reasons to continue to follow him). There are definite points of comparison with the scene of Christopher Mintz-Plasse in Promising young woman, but the difference here is that the lesson is not the point. That’s the game. The problem is blood, lots of blood.
house of darkness opens in limited release on September 9 before hitting Digital HD & VOD on September 13.