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'Men' Behaving Very Badly

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Aug. 22, 1997

"In the Company of Men" may not subject you to actual bloodshed, but it doesn’t have to. Set in the dehumanized world of corporate America, Neil LaBute’s movie revels in figurative violence -- the emotional damage that can be wreaked on lovers, for one, and the back-stabbing in the office when everyone’s vying for promotion, for another. This independent, low-budget movie (it cost a mere $25,000) shreds its characters’ souls, tears misogynistically into the female gender, and leaves you feeling more cut up about humanity than you did before the movie.

Is there a reason to see such a feel-bad movie? Not for many people. Yet, there’s something about "In the Company of Men" that pulls you in deeper and deeper. Its subject matter is too compelling to ignore. And your repulsion for the lead performer -- played with unnerving presence by Aaron Eckhart -- becomes a disconcerting fascination. As the appropriately named Chad Piercewell, he’s the movie’s most malignant presence and its top draw.

When the movie starts, Chad and his supervisor-friend, Howard (Matt Malloy), are lamenting the way they’ve been treated by their women. Chad complains that his wife walked out on him. Howard is recovering from a physical attack from the wife he’s divorcing. And these salesmen are in a business where young turks are constantly snapping at their heels.

"I get low numbers two months in a row?" says Chad, "They’re going to feed on my insides." As they prepare to fly to a branch office for a six-week spell, Chad hits on an idea. Why not take out their frustrations on an innocent, defenseless woman who isn’t getting much romantic attention in her life? First, they’ll feign romantic interest in her and, as soon as her ego swells from the attention of two men, they’ll drop her like a stone. It takes a few drinks, but Howard finally says, "I’m in."

Chad is elated. "Let’s hurt somebody," he says.

In the first week at the branch office, Chad selects the prey. Her name is Christine (Stacy Edwards). She’s sweet, trusting and happens to be deaf. Perfect victim material. Chad starts the process, takes her out, finds out about her, sends flowers, the whole deal. Then Howard starts in. Things get "romantic" between Chad and Christine; while Howard makes a show of rivalry. The weeks shoot by, heading inexorably towards that moment of treachery.

This movie might shock you; it ought to. It might make your blood boil. It might even tickle you (if so, please seek help). But it won’t leave you without a strong opinion. Is there more to it than the sadistic humiliation of a deaf woman, not to mention Chad’s all-but-racist humiliation of an African American male intern? I think so. "In the Company of Men" elbows you into looking beyond your initial attitudes to gender, race or socioeconomic status. It’s not just a mere exercise in misogyny and other ignoble abstractions, but a study of the kind of world that produces a Chad Piercewell. It’s also about the way that Howard -- an apparently decent man -- could be coerced into committing an unspeakable act.

For the record, it’s exceedingly well-made. Eckhart is in chilling command as a sort of satanic prince in shirtsleeves, while Malloy and Edwards imbue their roles with edgy sensitivity. Writer/director LaBute, a Fort Wayne, Ind.-based playwright, whose debut this is, has a masterful hand with camera angles, irony and dramatic structure. (In fact, the film is patterned after a five-act Restoration comedy.) This is a fully realized movie, whose intelligence -- despite its grim findings -- dwarfs any Hollywood production. It’s a film to admire -- even if it leaves you cold.

IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (R) — Contains profanity, sexual situations and thematic cruelty.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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