Film discussion

Throwback 20: In The Company of Men

All it takes is a dash of anger. A small self-righteous belief of victimisation. Two hideous examples of men. Blend well into a potent mix of toxicity that twenty years on, is still hard to swallow. Neil LaBute’s In The Company of Men is hard to find in England these days. The DVD is out of print. A google search reveals no UK Blu-ray release. It’s doubtful that we’ll see this waltz onto Netflix anytime soon. It’s both understandable, yet frustrating to see why. In the age where the term toxic masculinity is on the lips of many with a twitter account, why would anyone want a re-release of a film which has its male characters act so hatefully towards its females? On the other hand, the film (originally a play by LaBute) seems prophetic. Two decades since its release, the film comes years before the likes of Gamergate or James Damore. Before the acts of powerful men in the industry dominated pages of websites. An independent film with a relatively small release, In The Company of Men is hardly a trigger to the despicable behaviours of men today, but LaBute’s incisive writing, which still sounds so sharp even now, can definitely feel like ground zero.

The premise is devastatingly simple. Two white-collar workers, pained from their respective breakups from their significant others, decide upon a bet to wile away their spare time during a six-week business trip. They find one woman, a real “wallflower”. They both date her simultaneously when the time’s right, they’ll dump her at the same time to break her spirit and regain male dominance. The idea is vile, mean-spirited and only a couple of re-tools away from becoming She’s All That (1999). The final comment is, of course, a tad facetious, yet highlights just how easy it is for something so spiteful can be buffed up into a dubious teenage rom-com.

As a play, In The Company of Men debuted in 1992. Four years before Chuck Palahniuk released his debut novel Fight Club in 1996. When both films came out at the latter half of the decade (the movie version of Fight Club was released in 1999) along with the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis 1991 novel American Psycho appearing at the turn of the millennium, it’s hard not to look back at the decade and feel that this combination of films hold a sense of pushback the so-called modern man. The gentleman who appears to be more involved with his emotions. The guy who is supposedly a little bit more caring. Where we are now (on social media) may say that things may not have changed too much and watching In The Company of Men now feels like it was the small yell that generated the vast echoes we hear now.

“We’re not Frat boys. We want scotch” Chad (Arron Eckhart) states dismissively to a waitress in a small scene before the deed is set up. It’s interesting to note that the camera is placed to ensure we never see the woman’s face. The interaction is quietly spiteful as the waitress does nothing to generate the contempt that radiates from Chad’s face during this minor exchange. It’s not just the usual spite that people in customer services get. As Chad returns more excitedly to his partner in crime Howard (Matt Malloy) you sense that it’s all wrapped in the fact that the waitress is a woman. Chad is the “Alpha” of the insidious duo. A sharply suited snake, whose rants and raves may not explicitly state the words political correctness gone mad, but his complaints about “feminist twaddle” or how he’s not allowed to tell a joke in the workplace clearly show the type of guy he is.  Played by Arron Eckhart, it’s no wonder that Christopher Nolan got Eckhart to become Two-Face in The Dark Knight. His face so betrays to others what he’s really thinking. Eckhart has handsome all-American looks yet a smile that easily hints towards malice. A predatory grin. The fishes must be glad they trusted the shark. We only truly know how this man really feels when he’s belittling those around him. LaBute’s film is quick to wrap this battle of gender politics against the background of dog eat dog capitalism and Chad is the pulsing, oozing product of the environment. Everything the man sees is to be claimed and dominated. “Life is for the taking is it not?” “Never lose control, that’s the key.”  Guess who sets up the bet?

The “Beta” of the relationship is Howard, the man who wishes to walk the walk yet fumbles the talk. Constantly. Reeling from his break up with his long-term girlfriend, stonewalled by his mum in phone conversations, it’s easy to see why this such a wounded animal would decide to go all in on Chad’s idea. Slightly balding and floundering at work, in Howard’s eyes, he needs the win. Molloy, who is often remembered as the creepy, sweaty judge interested in young girls in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), excels in this role. He is the “nice guy”. Unassuming and yet just as capable of harm, especially as the film wears on and he finds out the such a deal with the devil is tough when emotions are involved.

Together these men are two ugly halves of a hideous whole. Chad’s ego and insincerity highlight him as the type of guy, women should know to run away from. His drunken period joke early on is a signifier of what this man feels about women. The joke to many is crass, but the punchline holds more to it than a simple timewasting piece of dialogue. He doesn’t trust anything that bleeds for five days? Chad simply doesn’t trust women. In turn, Howard’s insecurities are for all to see. Completely unable to be an influence in the office, it’s obvious why this wannabe hunter gather is lured by Chad’s insidious reasoning to the bet. That no matter what happens him afterwards, at least he destroyed something precious.

The precious thing is a pretty temp named Christine (Stacey Edwards), who happens to be deaf. This is not a hindrance to her abilities as an office worker and that’s clearly the point. The point of Christine is more than just a treat to be claimed in the eyes of the wolves. Christine is the dignity of the piece. This doesn’t mean that she is without fault. As the film escalates and both men puff their chests to woo the unknowing prize, Christine begins to fall for one of the men. Of course, she clearly feels discomfort for her actions for dating them both, whereas both men have very different feelings towards her by the end of the film. The difference is clear. Her response at one of the films pivotal moments of the film is one the shows an understanding of how painful it is to make someone feel unwanted. She blames herself for something that’s bigger than she actually knows. Do we feel the men feel the same?

The smartness of the piece lies in just how well LaBute juggles the politics of gender within the dog eat dog world of 90’s white-collar capitalism. A key scene involves Chad demanding a young black intern show him is balls. Not only uncomfortable in its harassment but telling in its power play. “You guys are privileged” claims Chad at a young black man who is a subordinate to him. It’s a moment which reminds us that Chad as a particular white male needs on top by demeaning a young black worker looking to find a career in this urban jungle. It’s a scene that not only suggests the type of stereotypes that many men still fear, but also notes the only way people are allowed to move up and down the corporate ladder. If you’re still unsure, this is a man who describes women as simply “Meat, gristle and hatred”. It’s also wise to note that Christine is the only person who only ever seems to do any work in the film. The men banter and bait each other. Chad at one point goes through a Rolodex of every male he hates. Both him and Howard make excuses on why productivity is down and they’re the ones talking about moving up or down the ladder. LaBute teases all this out in a film that’s statically framed (belaying the theatrical origins), forcefully acted and full of dialogue that bites and snaps.  The brutality of the film comes how incisive LaBute keeps things. We all pity a Howard. Most women probably share an office with a Chad. There are so many Christines out there that we forget their names. There’s a horrific amount of truth in the film’s ugliness.

Despite my more progressive-leaning sensibilities, the sickened side of me revels in Neil LaBute’s gender parlour games. So often his films appear to be held in a negative light. A trigger to why mediocre men go bad. In the same way that Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was looked upon as a glorification rather than an indictment. I view In The Company of Men as a mirror. Particularly in these trying times where misogynistic locker room talk can sit happily along in the presidential suite. All the while Women march to be respected. In The Company of Men highlights a director who was quick to highlight the ego and fragile pride of white-collar psychopaths before they shapeshifted into anonymity on social media platforms.

This Throwback has fought against mentioning too much of the film’s plot, particularly the chilling climax. A person becomes hurt and they don’t really know why. Another manages to regain their own sense of pride and the third party may not have learnt anything at all. I feel it’s more important if the reader has not seen the film, to let it all play out in front of them. I wonder if they hang on the same haunting line that strikes myself with every watch “Because I could”. The ugliness, the desperation, the sickness we witness is performed not just through economic and emotional insecurity, but through amoral desire. We’re now seeing this filter through to our faceless avatars as we navigate through the modern world. LaBute was there twenty years ago.

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