In the Company of Men
Screenplay : Neil LaBute
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Aaron Eckhart (Chad), Stacy Edwards (Christine), Matt Malloy (Howard), Michael Martin (Co-Worker #1), Mark Rector (John), Chris Hayes (Co-Worker #2), Jason Dixie (Intern)
The subject of Neil LaBute's debut film, "In The Company of Men" is cruelty, pure and simple. Although one of the central focuses of the film is cruelty between men and women, the film as a whole is not that narrow. It also branches off and shows cruelty between men and other men, between bosses and workers, between business colleagues, and even between those who call themselves friends. In less than two hours, it covers an entire spectrum, and leaves the viewer emotionally drained with its caustic honesty and brutal force of conviction.
At the core of the story are two men, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), both rising business executives who have been shipped to their company's Midwest branch for six weeks to complete an important project. When we first meet them, they are sitting in an airport, and their dialogue and body language tells us many things. First of all, Howard is higher up on the business ladder, but Chad is the stronger of the two. Chad, a handsome chain smoker with a wry grin, always dominates the conversation, and it is immediately apparent that Howard is something of a follower.
The opening ten minutes also set up the first major conflict, which is the fact that Chad and Howard have both recently been rejected by women. Chad's live-in girlfriend deserted the house with all the furniture, and Howard's fiancee told him that maybe they should see other people. Both are resentful about these developments, and Chad comes up with a radical idea, which (like most radical ideas) starts off as something of a joke. But the more it's tossed around, the more plausible it becomes. Chad suggests that during their six-week stay, he and Howard should find an emotionally vulnerable girl, date her, build her up, and then emotionally destroy her. "To show that we still have power," he says. "To restore some dignity."
At first, Howard is reluctant. But, like all followers, he eventually caves, and soon he and Chad are setting their targets on Christine (Stacy Edwards), a pretty young temp worker who also happens to be deaf. Her handicap is just icing on the cake for Chad, who immediately sets the plan in the motion. The film's structure breaks it into six segments representing each week of their stay, and it follows Chad and Howard simultaneously dating Christine, leading her along a path of lies and tricks, and then moving in for the kill.
But, as I said before, this "In the Company of Men" is not a one-trick pony. There is much more to it. LaBute understands his characters, and realizes that this plan, no matter how well executed, cannot come off perfectly. Unintentional emotions begin to develop, motives get altered, and characters don't respond as they should. As Shakespeare said about "the best laid plans of mice and men . . ."
While this is going on, LaBute also builds a strong case against the modern executive world and the poison it breeds. He purposely films the office as a bland, cookie-cutter world of white shirts, dark pants, and print ties. There is no life in the office save the backstabbing, cursing, and conniving of the businessmen. Everything is negative force. There is little loyalty except to one's self, and the men in power exploit those below them. This is shown in one particularly disturbing scene where Chad forces a young intern to humiliate himself for no other reason that to exercise his power.
In this way, the film constantly equates power to cruelty. Characters are seen according to their control over those around them. Standing at the top of the heap is Chad, but LaBute does not see this as a positive place to be. As portrayed by Eckhart, Chad is filled to the rim with bile. He is bitter about everything in life, and he doesn't like anyone. He is most dangerous because he is handsome and manipulative. This allows him to cover his true intentions, which are usually driven by the simple motivation to get ahead in life. "Life is for the taking, is it not?" he says.
His character reminds me of a line from a John Mellencamp song: "Do it to your brother 'fore he does it to you." Chad is heartless, but he is also paranoid -- he thinks everyone is out to get him, so in his mind the only way to survive is to get everyone else first. This renders him unable to build true human relationships, and even though he "wins" in the end, he is still tragic because he will forever lead a miserable, unfulfilled life.
Howard, short and balding with glasses and a bad sense of humor, is like a dim shadow of Chad. We understand that he will never really get anywhere in life either, but this is due to different circumstances. Unlike Chad, he's too sensitive to survive in the cutthroat business world, but it's all he's ever known. His inability to exercise the corporate control he has at his fingertips is indicative of his character as a whole. He is the most pathetic person in the film because he lacks either kindness (represented by Christine) or brute strength (represented by Chad) . Even though Christine is the one most at risk here, we feel she will survive; badly damaged, but still alive. We can't say the same for Howard.
Of course, none of this would come off if the three central performances weren't spectacular. Eckhart, Malloy, and Edwards, each representing different aspects of human potential or lack thereof, create a plausible triangle of emotions. Their physical performances are as important as what they say. When Howard fidgets nervously at a business meeting, we sense his weakness. When Chad sits casually in a colleague's office, making sexist remarks and obscene jokes, we understand that he can because no one will stand up to him. And when Christine readily falls into Chad's arms, looking at him with stricken eyes, the knot in our stomachs let us know just how vulnerable and manipulated she is.
"In the Company of Men" is easily one the best films of the year. LaBute's screenplay is a finely crafted testament to the potential for evil and the frailty of human emotions. The film offsets its brutality with black humor and constant human insight that always rings true. Despite out feeble attempts to delude ourselves into thinking Chad and Howard could never exist in real life, their words and actions still haunt us after the credits roll because, deep inside, we know they're real.
©1997 James Kendrick