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'In the Company of Men': Animal Behavior

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Aug. 22, 1997

When we are "In the Company of Men" we are in the company of wolves. This is not a movie about human behavior but animal -- it's about jockeying for leadership of the pack so that you don't have to look at what's under the tail of the growler ahead of you.

Corrosively funny if ultimately dispiriting in its misogyny and misanthropy, the movie watches as an alpha takes out an omega who was accidentally put in a leadership role. The scam is about as nasty as scams get, based on the smart guy's smooth reading of the dumb guy's vanities and weaknesses.

Poor Howie never knows what hits him. He's so dumb he doesn't even know that he's been hit.

What hits him is Chad, smiling sociopath, fountain of rage, geyser of angst and cesspool of charm. Chad: To know him is to be afraid, very afraid, and that's from this side of the screen.

The setting is some opaque corporate enterprise whose language is so generic it seems like a found poetry of acronym and initial -- "Oh, no, the WESPAC hasn't Q'd yet, and Marketing is [expletive] off." It's a place whose inner culture is madly competitive, even if its products and services are never made clear, which is, of course, another way of saying the battles are so intense because the stakes are so small.

Chad (brilliantly played by Aaron Eckhart) is dapper, winning, owns a Pepsodent smile, and has an ice pick for a soul, if he has a soul at all. In his thirties and terrified of the younger guys who want his "desk," he's been sent to a new, nameless city to work a six-week project for his immediate superior, Howie (Matt Malloy). One look at Howie and you know he's chum.

A small-time liar and chronic explainer, Howie is a book-smart, universe-dumb dope who has gatherer, not hunter, printed all over his face. He's sensitive! He's got a conscience! Moxie-disadvantaged, he yearns to be liked, he fears being disliked, and his mantra is "No big deal," which is what he is, exactly. Agh, what a dweeb! The only time we hear him taking a firm position with somebody, the sequence ends when that someone's identity is revealed: " . . . and that's the way it has to be, Mom."

Chad's game is to talk Howie into a little experiment in wanton cruelty. On their own in the new town for six weeks, and both seemingly bitter over romantic setbacks, they need a diversion, Chad tells Howie, much in the way Leopold told Loeb. They need to hurt someone -- a woman -- really badly so that they'll always have something to laugh at when their as-yet-unmet wives "run off with biochemists."

Chad finds her: not merely is she pretty and isolated but, joy of joys, she's deaf. "She's the nicest person that ever spit on me," Chad tells Howie in reporting on his first lunch with poor Christine (Stacy Edwards), whose impairment turns her voice into a tragedy of saliva-fueled effort. "You should see the way the bubbles collect in the corners of her mouth when she tries to talk!" he laughs.

The scheme is to give Christine a rush like she never knew -- two men going hard after her with flowers and sweet talk and dates -- and then to dump her with a colossal thump at the end of the six weeks and walk away snickering. Chad keeps pressing Howie to go on, and Howie is so secretly frightened of him he can't say no. But he is also horrified; this kind of close-in bayonet work isn't his style (he doesn't have a style, as it turns out). And you can predict the next move: He falls in love with Christine.

Writer-director Neil LaBute, whose first film this is, structures it like a series of stage blackouts. There's very little movement within the frame, and the settings are almost always stylized. The whole movie, in fact, is very theatrical and dialogue-driven.

But at the same time, LaBute has a keen eye for intimate details of men's culture. I love the way, for example, the men's postures change from guarded to loosey-goosey and unthreatened when they enter that last sanctum of their breed, the men's room. Liberated, they tell dirty jokes, smoke, needle, poke and generally act like the four-footers we -- I mean they -- are in their heart of hearts. Vive la liberte, vive la urinal!

The movie is so astringently cruel it may take your breath away. When Chad finally blows someone away totally and then asks, "Oh, how does it feel," it will make you sick. Will somebody please take this guy out? Put him out of our misery! Call the SWAT snipers. Rx: .308 hollow point to the center brain.

But as an examination of the pathologies of the tribe, the film is equally breathtaking. It's like an episode of "Seinfeld" written by Joseph Conrad, and it shows that under a white shirt and rep tie, it's still possible to have a heart of darkness.

In the Company of Men is rated R for strong language and emotional intensity.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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