The hard thing about being an enfant terrible is staying an enfant terrible. Neil LaBute, who returns this week with "The Shape of Things," is a case in point.
Mr. LaBute made a noisy splash with his first movie, "In the Company of Men," about two obnoxious yuppies who seduce and abandon a woman they scarcely know as revenge against all the other women who've dissed them over the years.
The picture was heavy-handed and mean-spirited, but many moviegoers responded to its sheer audacity. Something similar happened when LaBute released "Your Friends & Neighbors."
Some critics concluded that LaBute was a boy wonder who'd sink below the box-office horizon once his brand of shock value wore thin.
Not content to follow such a predictable route, LaBute went mainstream with a vengeance last summer. "Possession" featured high-profile stars (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam) and a deeply romantic story borrowed from an A.S. Byatt novel.
I was no fan of LaBute's more abrasive pictures, but his Hollywood haymaker was even worse. So I was relieved when he told me in an interview that his next picture - "The Shape of Things" - would return to the idiosyncratic style of his early work.
He was telling the truth and, best of all, the new film is easily the best he's made so far.
Rachel Weisz plays Evelyn, an art student at a small college that follows the contemporary fashion of valuing self-centered assertiveness over empathy and cooperation.
Paul Rudd plays Adam, an insecure young man who becomes her boyfriend after a conversation in a local museum takes surprising turns.
Adam becomes more assured under Evelyn's influence, growing in self-esteem but losing some of the satisfaction he formerly found in his friendship with Jenny and Philip, also students at the college.
In a purposeful and organic way, "The Shape of Things" evolves from the story of one couple to the story of two, as interactions between the four main characters intensify.
Then it veers in a startling direction shortly before the end, revealing a whole other dimension in the affair between Evelyn and Adam that changes the meaning of everything we thought we knew about them.
I won't give this away, but it's the sort of plot twist only the craftiest - and most perverse - storyteller could come up with.
It transforms the picture from a well-made romantic comedy-drama into a disturbing deconstruction of truisms about love, loyalty, learning, maturing, and the complex relationships among art, ethics, and honesty.
From being a filmmaker who tries too hard - straining for edgy effrontery in his early films, then panting after Hollywood cuteness in his big-studio effort - LaBute has finally found a productive middle path.
He's woven an engrossing yarn that combines his critical, often astringent intelligence with a concern for human feelings that's miles beyond anything found in his previous pictures.
He gets first-rate help from Ms. Weisz and Mr. Rudd as well as from Gretchen Mol and Frederick Weller as their friends. But the lion's share of credit goes to LaBute, who based the script on his play of the same title, already a success on the London and Off-Broadway stages.
He's coming of age as an artist, and his future looks brighter than I ever would have suspected a year ago.
Enfant terrible or not, he's starting to become a substantial figure in American film.
• Rated R; contains sex and innuendo.