Originally shown September 15, 2010
You know it happened, somewhere, sometime: some poor SOB took a woman on a date to see Neil LaBute’s 1997 film In the Company of Men. Bad call, sir, bad call. I think this is a movie that will give just about anyone something to talk about, but for women it might not be a very pleasant conversation.
We open with Chad (Aaron Eckhart, in a career-making debut) and co-worker Howard (Matt Malloy) discussing their difficult breakups. Both men are traveling to a branch office of their company for a few weeks, and they come up with a plan to get revenge on the female gender while on the trip. They’ll both start a relationship with the same woman, and then both dump her when they skip town, leaving her as hurt and angry as they are. They find a seemingly perfect woman to victimize: Christine, a deaf secretary played by Stacy Edwards, but their plans are complicated when Howard finds himself taking the relationship more seriously than he expected to.
I generally see In the Company of Men described as a black comedy, which I suppose is true. It has its amusing moments, most of which come by mining Chad’s nearly bottomless depth of hatred for everyone around him. It’s rather like a Facebook post which goes far over the top in its bilious language, or an episode of House: you laugh because you can’t believe one person can get away with being such a giant asshole. However, Christine is written as the perfect target for Chad and Howard’s scheme; shy and vulnerable, she’s never had guys competing for her affections. Thus, I don’t think any of Christine’s scenes would be confused with comedy: Edwards Method-acts herself almost into the background, and does it so well that you may be surprised to learn that she has no hearing impairments in real life.
Throughout his career, LaBute has been dogged by accusations that his work is misogynistic.* In the case of this movie, it’s difficult for me to take a position either way. Chad’s whole plan is that being shy and deaf does not change Christine’s true nature: once exposed to the competing affections of two men, she will react “just like a woman.” She’ll fall for Chad’s artifically crafted persona, while lying to and leading on the shy Howard, which is exactly what happens. Thus you could argue (and Chad certainly does) that through her dishonesty, Christine is as much at fault as Chad and Howard. That would be true, except the whole reason she is being dishonest is because two guys made a bar bet to turn her life into a living hell, so to imply such things is like blaming a rape victim for the clothes she wore.
However, the movie has a defense against accusations of misogyny, and it’s a good one: it understands that Howard is just as guilty as Chad. Howard holds the common belief that being a “nice guy” – or, at least, being nicer than Chad – means he’s entitled to Christine’s affection. LaBute sees that viewpoint for the sexist delusion that it is: it assumes that Christine is incapable of making her own decision. Worse, the “nice guy” delusion assumes that if Christine chooses a Chad-type and something bad happens to her afterward, she deserved it. LaBute knows better: even if Howard is only following Chad, both men start their path from a place of deep contempt for Christine, and you can’t just ignore that.
I don’t want to spoil the last two scenes of this film, but I think they are more or less perfect because they commit completely to the characters. In “real life” we might never find out the true nature of Chad’s scumbaggery, or the emotion that Howard has been holding back from the beginning of the movie. However, this is not quite real life – it’s more of a morality play. We need to see that Chad’s true nature is not so much “scumbag” as “evil,” which might lead us to wonder why Howard could follow such a person. Then, in one of the best final shots of a movie that I’ve ever seen, we understand that Howard did not have to be led so far: Chad was just tapping into a reservoir of rage that was already there. Where did it come from? That’s a question that you should discuss for yourselves.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*To be fair, part of the misogyny claim comes from the hilariously ill-conceived remake of The Wicker Man that LaBute made with Nicholas Cage. It’s so terrible that it can make a filmmaker’s entire career look bad: a movie which is anti-feminist, anti-woman, anti-exciting, anti-acting, and anti-good sense.