A circle of six friends - a group consisting of three men and three women - become lovers and ex-lovers, doing each other a lot of emotional damage in the process as they fall in and out of love and like with their rounds of changing partners. But who is actually in control?
Writer and director Neil LaBute's second film is a no-frills sex drama about emotional violence, as his first film adopted as its subject. It's a slight improvement on the overpraised In the Company of Men, having a more complex plot than that weirdly petty little production about victimisation in the workplace, and a sense that more thought had gone into its shock value, but like that film you wonder what he is trying to say. Is it that men are bastards and women are their victims? Or is it more complicated than that - does neither gender emerge with flying colours in his variation of the oft-cited battle of the sexes? He did appear to revel in the possibilities of sheer, unfettered unpleasantness, especially where the females were concerned.
That said, LaBute appears to regard each of his characters with utter contempt, the male ones especially (there's a poster for Le Mepris on an apartment wall in a none too subtle nod for movie buffs) and Ben Stiller's weasely acting teacher in particular. But what about Jason Patric's aggressive, chauvinistic, alpha male? Do I detect a grudging admiration? A very typical personality of this director's canon, he's easily the most successful character, he's full of confidence and he gets the girls (the implication is that the only women not interested in him are lesbians). His monologue about the best sex he ever had is an uncomfortable highlight, describing as it did a gang rape on a male acquaintance of his that he was an eager and willing participant in.
You may not enjoy this film, but you can't deny it's thought-provoking, well made and impressively acted. Then again, it's also accurate to observe that you can't quite shake the feeling it's just an heartless piece of controlled nastiness, and the director was getting off on how far he could go by testing the audience's limits of how long they would go with the characters' bad behaviour they were watching. In that way there was an artifice about their depiction, as if they were purely there for effect and if this had any sense of humour whatsoever it might have been put to good use as black comedy. As it was, strictly for those who like to wallow in social evildoing on screen (not that it turned to murder, though the lovers seemed capable) because they think it's edgy and brave, no matter how absurd it may be in the long run; there was an immaturity here in its barely restrained, unhealthily salivating excitement at the concept of bullying lasting far too far into adulthood. Listen for: the characters' names. You won't hear them, just see the arbitrary monikers given in the end credits.