In the Company of Men
1997, R, 93 min. Directed by Neil LaBute. Starring Aaron Eckhart, Stacy Edwards, Matt Malloy.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 5, 1997
It's possible that we may see no better movie this year than Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men. As disturbing as it is well-made, this low-budget indie is a thoroughly original piece of work. It's a dark, incisive, and funny drama about contemptible behavior, behavior that is so amoral, so despicable, so capricious, and so ordinary that we can't help but recognize its human dimension. It's an evil that's bred in the bone -- this desire to control and to hurt others either for the sheer hell of doing it, or as some kind of displaced payback for perceived injustices -- but it's also an evil that's bred in our culture and is embedded in the corporate work structure. In the Company of Men illustrates and dissects that behavior with the methodological precision of a criminal pathologist. Chad (Eckhart) and Howard (Malloy) are two mid-level corporate managers sent out of town on a six-week assignment. At the outset, Chad proposes a vicious plan, to which Howard readily consents, for the two men to target a susceptible woman for emotional abuse and then hightail it out of town, with the payoff being that they will be able to look back and laugh about it until they are very old men. Christine (Edwards), a deaf temp in the typing pool, becomes their unwitting target. Not 'til near the end of the movie do we discover that the scheme involves more victims than merely Christine. But it also makes clear that the venom fueling the plot is an evil that can't be reduced to simple misogyny or hatred of the handicapped. The film shows us a poison that's sprayed with indiscriminate abandon when some perversion of the survival instinct reacts to all human contact as a threat. What's truly rare about In the Company of Men is the way in which it encourages us to find the likable qualities of these loathsome characters and then refuses to settle the dramatic score by imposing some moral retribution. It requires viewers to make their own peace with the horrors just witnessed (something that may lead some viewers, at least at first glance, to confuse the messengers with the message, but it should soon become apparent even to these viewers that hateful characters in a work of fiction do not automatically serve as proselytizers or recruiting agents). The pared-down visual style of In the Company of Men also perfectly complements the movie's narrative and emotional economy. Shot on a shoestring budget in 11 days in the director's hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the film's locations all exude the anonymity of Anywhere, USA: airports, hotels, and the stripped-down shell of an office that's in a state of perpetual renovation. So too, Chad and Howard speak so much of the time in a kind of corporate blather, which has the effect of shuffling words around the officeplace in the same rote manner that one shuffles papers around a desk. In the Company of Men's language and its delivery are a very real pleasure to experience, an aspect that's made all the more pointed because of Christine's hearing impairment. Its deftness with language is also a testament to the skill of the actors and the good training of LaBute's background as a playwright. LaBute, however, also seemed to know exactly what he wanted to accomplish once he got a camera in his hands. The visual structure of In the Company of Men is an organic whole, with thoughtfully composed shots and tableaux functioning as the story's backbone. There is absolutely nothing extraneous in LaBute's movie -- one of those lovely confluences of artistic vision and budgetary restrictions. For LaBute, the balancing act seems to have been just one more sprint down the Morality Mile.