Neil LaBute’s “In the Company of Men” (1997) was easily the most controversial film of its movie year, which is saying something, since no less than David Cronenberg’s “Crash” and David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” also arrived in 1997.
It begins with an aggressive percussive score, with the opening scene taking place in a men’s room. The first line we hear is from Aaron Eckhart’s Chad, who asks his friend and office colleague Howard (Matt McCoy), “So, how do you feel?”
Chad and Howard are caustic and burnt out from work. We sense that Chad is an alpha male immediately, not only from the big brother way he speaks to Howard but also from how he casually mentions owning an “American Gigolo” poster.
As we listen in on their conversations, which become more and more casually brutish we learn how hateful and childish they are.
What they discuss in a “locker room” setting becomes the core of a sort of “Strangers on a Train” (1951) scenario, as LaBute’s film becomes a white-collar horror film. Chad and Howard decide, for fun, to find an innocent woman who they will both smother with ample attention, then dump hard, in order to feel good about themselves.
“In the Company of Men” is sinister, compelling and truly horrifying, a remarkable feat for a film where the violence (with the exception of one scene) is entirely verbal. LaBute never apologizes for Chad or Howard, nor does he ever celebrate them. We watch these creeps the way we’d view jaguars feasting on gazelles during a nature documentary.
While references are made to Lewis & Clark and the Wright brothers, both Chad and Howard are pre-Patrick Bateman prototypes (or, at the very least, the kind of office colleagues who would compare business cards with him).
Stacy Edwards is cast as Christine, the deaf woman who Chad and Howard pick as their intended victim, an office worker who is initially flattered that she’s being pursued by two men. She even lies to Howard in order to go out with Chad, though the film ups the stakes when one of the two creeps playing her boyfriend falls for her.
LaBute’s film isn’t misogynistic, but it is about misogyny. There’s a big difference between those two distinctions and LaBute, who would rather be provocative than traditional, never goes easy on his audience.
Edwards being cast as a deaf character (as well as the overall tone, which avoids any kind of audience-mandated moralizing) wouldn’t fly today. That said, there’s nothing remotely mawkish, insensitive or wrong-headed about Edwards’s performance; yes, she’s playing a deaf adult, but the character is interesting and layered, not a symbol or caricature.
Despite what happens to Christine, she’s tough, independent and a survivor (watch her during the agonizing and perfect final scene).
FAST FACT: Neil LaBute looked back at his directorial debut 20 years later courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics: “I don’t think that sexism necessarily ever went away at all. Of course, during the past 20 years we’ve started to overcome those archaic notions about a “woman’s place.” But at the same time, I think it is ludicrous to think that people who are better educated are likely to be less sexist or racist. Old tricks die hard.”
Just in case the audience is taken by Chad’s charisma and nearly comical lack of moral grounding, LaBute includes a cringe-inducing scene where Chad is racist towards a colleague; the point is obviously meant to illustrate just how extensive Chad’s loathsome, downright evil behavior is, though the scene is a bit much.
If anything, LaBute would have surprised us by going in the opposite direction and showing us Chad wasn’t racist, though, considering what we learn about him, it would be hard to believe that any part of him would be empathetic or progressive.
“In the Company of Men” was the first movie I ever saw at the Mayan Theater, a historical landmark in Denver, Colo. that has survived threats of a wrecking ball on more than one occasion. I was invited to see the film with a group of young women who were living in my college stairwell and had heard rave reviews about it.
Since I was writing movie reviews for our college paper, I was invited with a cluster of intelligent and adventurous women to see this hot-button movie and found, to my surprise, that I was clearly the only male present at the packed opening night screening.
Throughout the film, there were moments where I wanted to hide under my seat.
Although it’s full of cringe inducing moments, the frank quality of LaBute’s screenplay, matched by the performances, kept me utterly fascinated.
An odd detail I remember about that screening: “Kiss Me Guido” which had opened the same night and was playing on the screen next door, was generating thunderous laughter below us. At the time, I wished I could duck out and see that one instead.
By the time LaBute’s film ended, I felt taken through the wringer, both disgusted and engrossed by the brazen ugliness of it. I don’t remember the conversations I had with my new friends on the drive back to college, only that they were long, passionate and open in a way that the film provided with its frankness.
Despite how far Eckhart’s star rose immediately after the film opened and the shocking nature of the film, “In the Company of Men” hasn’t remained in the zeitgeist. I wonder if it feels like many as a late ’90s relic, one of those little indies that made its mark then faded from consciousness.
LaBute’s film is cruel and heartbreaking, but it’s by design and intended to make audiences talk about the kind of behavior that is casually referred to as “locker room talk” or “boys being boys.”
LaBute is warning us that the only thing worse than a man who is mean to women on purpose is a man who believes he could never do something like that. McCoy’s Howard is the audience surrogate and he’s also the true monster of the film.
LaBute’s film is smart enough to know that the most dangerous man here isn’t Chad but the naïve, corruptible and stupid Howard. The premise is outrageous and the scheme that drives the plot is hurtful, of course, but LaBute, rather than punish the obviously awful Chad, explores how the delayed moral conflict and good intentions of Howard result in behavior every bit as odious as Chad could come up with.
Howard whines “Can’t you see I’m the Good Guy,” and, like Christine, we don’t believe him.
That’s why “In the Company of Men” remains so horrifying and essential. LaBute is telling us that everyone is capable of reprehensible behavior, no matter who they keep company with.