“Women. Nice ones, the most frigid of the race—it doesn’t matter in the end. Inside, they’re all the same: Meat and gristle and hatred, just simmering.” —Aaron Eckhart, In The Company Of Men
[Note: Just a reminder, The New Cult Canon is not a spoiler-free zone. Major plot developments at the end of In The Company Of Men will be discussed in this article. Consider yourself warned.]
Neil LaBute’s 1997 directorial debut, In The Company Of Men, attracted such a heap of controversy at the Sundance Film Festival that most distributors didn’t want to touch it, even though no other film at that year’s festival was as talked-about. There were worries that lines like the one above—to say nothing of the vile actions they preface—would draw a backlash from arthouse audiences sensitive to misogyny. It had the potential to be another fiasco along the lines of David Mamet’s toxic gender study Oleanna, not least because LaBute owed the great playwright an obvious debt (if not royalties) for his clipped, profane, hyper-masculine dialogue, his spare directorial style, and a closing twist that echoes Mamet’s love of the long con. The film eventually found its way into theaters seven or eight months later, but the controversy stayed with it, and to my mind, the chief complaint was consistently wrong-headed. In The Company Of Men isn’t a misogynistic film, it’s a misanthropic film. Big difference.
Though LaBute would have plenty of time later in his career to proselytize about the diabolical nature of the fair sex—most explicitly in The Shape Of Things and his famously misbegotten remake of The Wicker Man—women (or, well, woman) are the collateral damage of In The Company Of Men, the object of a tribal matter. (And if you don’t pick up on the territorial pissing from the action and dialogue already, there’s also an aggressive, percussion-based score with sharp blasts of saxophone to support it.) Granted, there are one-liners that bristle with misogynist rancor: “I don’t trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die”; “What’s the difference between a golf ball and a G spot? I’ll spend 20 minutes looking for a golf ball.” But that’s only text. The subtext is all about power, about the ruthless ways in which men assert their strength, and leave the weakest among them to be picked apart by vultures.
In The Company Of Men is a movie that needs to be seen more than once—the first time to appreciate the provocative, hair-raising gamesmanship of two men embarking on a shockingly cruel conquest, and the second to see just how expertly LaBute lays the groundwork for the big twist at the end. From the basic premise, audiences are led to believe they’re witnessing a redux of Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), two corporate middle-management types stranded at a far-flung branch for a six-week project, resolve to destroy a good woman for sport. Both have ostensibly been burned by women in the past, so this will be their chance to exact revenge without having to stick around for the fallout. The Bambi to their Godzilla turns out to be Christine (Stacy Edwards), a deaf secretary whom Chad reasons will be too appreciative of the attention to notice that they’re putting one over on her. The seeds for the scheme are planted in an airport lobby early in the film, as Howard grouses about the latest woman who done him wrong. And already, text and subtext are commingling:
“We ought to do something about it.” That’s the line that sets the whole plan into motion, yet it’s slipperier than it appears to be. LaBute is clever with his pronoun here: Naturally, we take “it” to mean something like “the evil that women do,” given that we’ve just heard Howard blather on about the pain and humiliation of seeing someone for a year, introducing her to the folks, and giving her a ring, only to be rebuffed. But when you consider the line in retrospect, what Chad really means by “it” is “your weak, pathetic, ineffectual ass.” You’ll note that in the very next scene, before Chad even outlines his plan to “hurt somebody,” he’s already lying to Howard about his longtime girlfriend Suzanne packing up and leaving him with a futon and his poster of American Gigolo. (Side note: Chad’s cineliteracy is an odd and incongruous element of the film. He later references a romantic drive as a “Magnificent Ambersons thing.”) There’s no doubt that a solid portion of Chad’s bottomless contempt toward humankind is directed at women, but hearing Howard talk about parking outside his girlfriend’s house at 4 a.m., or calling her three times before she reciprocates, puts him over the edge. Howard is a wounded gazelle, hobbling on the plain; by instinct, Chad goes in for the kill.
The other reason for Chad to devour his friend: Howard has been promoted to team leader on the current project, and that’s an injustice Chad works hard to correct. While carrying out the seduce-and-dump plan on Christine, Chad also sabotages Howard at every opportunity, losing faxes and packages in a concerted effort to pants Howard in front of their corporate betters. From what we see of him at work, Chad doesn’t appear to do anything outside of engaging in frat-guy shenanigans. (In a hilarious scene, he casually flips through the company directory, pointing out how much he hates every guy he comes across. “That dude, now he’s a new breed of fuck.”) And from what we see of Howard, diligently clacking away on his laptop in the film’s first scene, he’s clearly the more intelligent and competent of the two, and his promotion was likely based on merit. But the universe isn’t ordered on the basis of intelligence and competence on the job; in Chad’s words, it’s about “who’s sporting the nastiest sack of venom, and who’s willing to use it.” The source of that line is the film’s most infamous scene, a racially discomfiting exchange in which Chad asserts his dominance over an underling:
Not enough can be said about how good Aaron Eckhart is in his breakthrough role, or how important it is that the film’s complicated mechanics are greased by his oily frat-guy charm. Much like Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho a couple years later, Eckhart’s sleek executive posture obscures his monstrousness, but he’s a more recognizable creature, a metaphor for the male animal rather than the corporate one. Lots of things need to fall into place in order for Chad’s diabolical plan to work: Christine has to choose him over Howard, and Howard has to betray their tag-team cruelty by falling in love with her. LaBute sets the table perfectly, but Eckhart’s easy, confident swagger brings it across; his Chad makes easy pickings of Christine and Howard both, because his chief talent is for preying on human vulnerability while betraying none of his own. He’s a master manipulator in part because he can’t be manipulated. Eckhart would go on to play variations on Chad in movies like Thank You For Smoking and Towelhead, but never with the same potency.
But lest we paint Howard as the innocent victim in all this, I’d assert that he’s nearly as terrible as Chad—and perhaps worse, in the way he claims victimhood while playing the perpetrator. During the seduction phase, he keys in on Christine’s failure to disclose that she’s dating Chad at the same time she’s seeing him. He lives to catch her in a lie and punish her for it, like when he “accidentally” bumps into her and Chad on a lunch date at a local barbeque joint. (Chad twists the knife, too: “He’s a hell of a guy, a truly decent person.”) Everybody remembers Chad’s terrible reveal to Christine in a hotel room, but the precursor to that moment is equally sickening, with Howard finally spilling “the game” by telling her that Chad detests her and her “pathetic retard voice.” If we ever believed Howard was the good guy—sensitive, full of feeling, and really caring about the women who have dumped him in the past—LaBute definitively puts the lie to that.
The long con of In The Company Of Men is one of the most effective twists I can recall, both because you expect the gamesmanship to end with a broken Christine sobbing on the hotel bed, and because it changes (or at least underlines) what the movie is really about. Again, LaBute owes Mamet more than a tip of the hat, but where Mamet often deals in the bonds between men, LaBute exposes the fissures. And In The Company Of Men is more than the sum of its influences: It’s a model of low-budget economy, from its clever framing of vast swaths of dialogue (the fake “safari” through the local zoo is a particularly good touch) to its backdrop of the company’s shoddy, fly-by-night operation. I’ve never liked a LaBute film since—the misanthropy curdled from theme to defining characteristic in his very next effort, Your Friends & Neighbors—but his debut presented a rare challenge to an independent scene where humanity is an aesthetic value, no matter how clumsily it’s expressed. In The Company Of Men reminds us that malice and bile are part of the human experience, too, and it’s healthy to recognize it on occasion.
Next week: Army Of Darkness
November 26 & December 3: No columns due to Thanksgiving and Best Of The Decade film bonanza, respectively.
December 10: Bottle Rocket