March 30th: A company of wolves…

81. In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute, 1997)

I remember pretty clearly when this film was released. I had started devouring movie magazines at a rate of knots so I knew all about Neil LaBute facing repeated accusations that he was a misogynist and that he had a serious problem with women. It formed part of the booming 90s American independent cinema movement and for that alone I should have probably seen it when it was released. Those days stretched from Reservoir Dogs through Clerks and ending, as I knew them anyway, when the independents were completely subsumed by the majors.

Anyway, enough reminiscing, this isn’t a film nostalgia site. Chad and Howard are dispatched to a new office being set up by their company for six weeks to manage the transition. On the way the pair divulge stories of their recent heartbreak and Chad plans revenge, not on their recent partners, but on someone new, someone who would serve as a cipher for all women. They’ll pick someone who isn’t noticeable, a wallflower, someone they can easily get the attention of. Then separately they’ll date her for the six weeks, give her confidence and affection before pulling the rug at the end of it all. Howard reluctantly agrees and they find their target soon after they arrive. Christine is a temping typist and, even better for Chad, she’s deaf. She’s the perfect ‘damaged goods’ for his cruel game.

It’s easy to see why LaBute was accused of misogyny. The premise of the film is so superficially callous and Chad, played with evident glee by Aaron Eckhart, is a facsimile of Patrick Bateman – a sociopath rewarded by the business world. In fact you might hate Chad, I certainly did. He’s an absolutely despicable character, undoubtedly charismatic but lacking in any redeeming humane features whatsoever. Howard on the other hand is a complete sop, he goes along with Chad’s awful plan and eventually begins to unravel under the stress of it. This all takes place in a strange twilight business world. All the action occurs between the meetings and conference calls in shadowy halls and offices. The sharp vindictive dialogue is spat out with real vigour by Eckhart as he chews the scenery. But this would mean nothing without a heart for the story and the heart of the film is Christine, played with touching understatement by Stacy Edwards. It’s impossible not to sympathise with her from the moment she is on screen being circled by Chad.

I can’t see the film as misogynistic, I think it’s much smarter than that. Yes, Chad is a misogynist, in fact by the end of the film you’ll believe him capable of anything. He is a complete sociopath, devoid of any conscience at all. This film is an indictment of the patriarchal business world, it has to be. A world that rewards Chad and degrades Christine isn’t anything to aspire to, it’s a mess. A mess we are curiously well aware of at the moment. LaBute doesn’t offer any easy answers either, because there aren’t any to give, he’s holding a mirror up to something that is truly ugly.

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