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In the Company of Men

By Angie Drobnic

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  I hated In the Company of Men. However, that reaction made me think of a question asked by a university professor, as reported in this month's Harper's: "What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?" In the Company of Men lends itself to this query because the film so artfully dodges the distinction between condemning the evils that men commit and merely reporting the fact that such evil exists. If such an intentional moral ambiguity troubles you--as it does me--then this film will as well.

In the Company of Men tells the story of Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), two white collar executives on an extended business trip. Both profess to despise the cutthroat working world, and both complain bitterly about the rejections they've suffered at the hands of women. So Chad comes up with a plan to make them feel better: In the six weeks the two are visiting the new branch office, they will pick the same unlikely ugly duckling to court. After lavishing her with affection, they will both simultaneously reject her before leaving town. Says Chad, "She'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week, and you and me, we'll laugh about this until we're very old men." Chad soon picks out Christine (Stacy Edwards), a beautiful deaf woman who works in the typing pool, and the two men begin their sickening game.

Because of its story, In the Company of Men plays to the worst romantic fears that women have about men: Even worse than just using a woman for sex, the man is psychologically torturing her for nothing but his own amusement. It's such an extreme scenario that Chad and Howard, played chillingly by Eckhart and Malloy, verge on--but never quite are--stereotypes in their calculated cruelty. Chad is the mastermind, the good-looking motivator, while Howard is too spineless and weak to resist Chad's plans. The corporate setting also adds to the film's nerve-wracking tension. The sets are stark, with little color. The film never even tells us the name of the company, which city it's in, what Howard and Chad do or what kind of company it is. The "this could happen anywhere" quality is chilling.

Men and women will undoubtedly interpret this film differently, and the critical response that In the Company of Men has garnered is already amazingly varied. Many reviewers of ITCM have split as to whether the film is a misogynist freak show or a feminist indictment of male arrogance. Other reviewers have said that the movie actually indicts all its characters, and that Christine is equally manipulative in the way she handles Gary and Howard's affections. Therefore, ITCM is more a severe misanthropic indictment on both corporate culture and romance.

Regardless of these other critical responses, when I finished watching ITCM, I felt disgusted and repulsed by the events displayed on screen. The mind of Nick LaBute, the writer and director, must be very sick indeed. But upon further reflection, if one can achieve the necessary emotional detachment while watching the film (which I initially couldn't--hence my intellectual flaw), the film reveals itself as a feminist commentary on the kind of cruelty that corporate culture and its adherents breed. The condemnation of the characters and their flaws is very subtle, but I think a myriad of small clues reveal it to attentive viewers. Obviously, however, there's a lot of room for interpretation.

Interestingly, In the Company of Men evoked more repulsion in me than a host of other films employing grotesque monsters, serial killers or Tarantino-esque bloody violence. It's a testament to LaBute's skill as a filmmaker that on a low budget and a script that is, in essence, nothing but people talking, he can still evoke such strong emotion and dissension among viewers. There are rare times when a movie comes along that gets people talking and arguing about not only the film's narrative meaning but also its very intent. This is one of them; don't pass up your chance to see it.

--Angie Drobnic

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