In the Company of Men is a story of two men, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), who hatch a plan to date a vulnerable woman at the same time, then break up with her at the same time, leaving her completely devastated. They find a deaf secretary in their office, Christine (Stacy Edwards) and put their vile plan into action.
Lest the premise put you off too much, it’s a movie that knows full well how despicable its leads are. That’s the point, and what the movie is about, in a general sense. At it’s Sundance premiere in 1997, it was hailed as a brilliant film, one of the most talked-about of the year, but no distributors wanted it for fear of the controversy its misogynistic leads would create.
But balking at the misogyny and dismissing the film is to dismiss the point it has to make.
The film is much more complex than an exercise in cruelty. Chad is an evil and despicable man, misogynistic, homophobic, casually racist and a face in the crowd of the corporate world the two men inhabit. He’s also ridiculously handsome, erudite and charming, and such a master of manipulation you-as-an-audience-member find yourself as often swept up in his charm as you do loathing him.
Howard is a nebbish wallflower, a man who’s clearly worked hard to get to his position, and it says as much about his character as it does of his circumstance that his position is still essentially middle-rung. Howard is the type of guy who helps out the cooler kids by doing their work for them but never getting the credit or status they do. It’s easy to see why a man with so little presence of his own would be swept up by Chad’s charisma. When Chad proposes his plan, Howard’s commitment is a reluctant “I guess…” and it sets up how he’s pulled in by the lure of everything else Chad stands for – namely power. He’s also the one who puts the plan in jeopardy by falling for Christine, despite the initial intentions of their plot.
Christine is a sweet, compassionate woman. She’s shy and insecure (she wears headphones despite being deaf so people will get her attention with more display than simply calling her name), but lovely and endearing. She’s the perfect prey for the two predatory leads.
The impetus for Chad and Howard’s actions is their mutual disgruntlement at their treatment at the hands of their respective significant others. Chad’s girlfriend has left him by fading him out of her life, while Howard’s fiancée has broken the engagement once she’s had her doubts about marrying him; both men are bitter and angry about this. The idea behind their plot is that no matter what any other women do to them, nothing will affect them more than they have affected their unwitting mark, and Christine’s feelings be damned.
On the surface, it’s a film all about misogyny. And while it’s certainly a cornerstone of the film’s foundation, it’s not the entirety. It’s really about misanthropy; specifically Chad’s misanthropy.
Make no mistake, this film would be nothing without a central performance as perfectly pitched as Aaron Eckhart’s. He is electrifyingly good as Chad, a completely reprehensible man with no redeeming virtues, but one who can fool anyone into thinking otherwise.
The setting of the film is the still-in-development offices of a satellite branch of the company Chad and Howard work for. In the larger sense, the setting of the film is the corporate world in general. We never find out what the company does, or what Chad and Howard’s specific jobs are – they’re indistinguishable from any number of other white-collar characters, and because of the alien world of airport lounges, board rooms and corner offices they inhabit, they themselves become indistinguishable from the extras in the film save for their speaking roles.
The crucial difference is that Chad is more than aware of this, while Howard labours under the pretence of being able to succeed in this world that completely and utterly does not care about him.
Both men are essentially inert in this world – sent to this branch by their head office with no desire to be there, angry at the situation and looking to exact their revenge. Chad knows how he can do this; Howard isn’t aware of it at all except for his insecurity and rage about being dumped by his fiancée.
Under these circumstances, the film ends up being about more than two men being unimaginably cruel to an undeserving woman. It’s as much about this impotent male rage that’s being squashed by the expectations of being a cog in the corporate machine as it is about their evil actions towards Christine.
While Chad plays the game he finds himself in with an ugly zeal, Howard, more optimistic about his circumstances than is wise, finds himself falling in love with Christine, but revealing himself as more pathetic in the long run.
Consider two important scenes:
Howard arranges a date with Christine at the zoo and turns up late. He apologises, and explains that two interns messed up one of his projects, and he had to ream them before leaving. Christine feels awful that the two men messed up his project, as she knows how much it means to him, and also awful for the two men for being castigated. Her selfless compassion completely disarms Howard, and he quickly reveals that he was actually late because he went to the hotel to change his shirt, and made up the story to impress her.
In the film’s most uncomfortable scene, Chad interviews a young African-American intern about a potential promotion within the company. The intern’s name is Keif, but Chad subtly interrogates his pronunciation until he falsely-corrects it to Keith. Though he says nothing, it’s clear that Chad is implying what an opportunity he’s offering Keif because of the difference of their skin colour. Chad then proceeds to demand that if Keif thinks he’s got the balls for this promotion he’d better prove it – by showing Chad his balls. It’s an immensely uncomfortable scene, not least of all when Keif complies. Chad then quickly wraps up the meeting and makes Keif fetch him a coffee.
The crucial difference in these scenes is how both men perceive their power. Howard considers the display of dominance over the interns to be a desirable trait and can’t handle it when it doesn’t impress. Chad on the other hand is being dominant over an intern, but after Keif complies, he’s instantly bored and disappointed – a bully picking the legs off ants who’s got nothing left to do once the ant is dead.
Christine eventually falls for Chad’s façade, and tries to break it off with Howard, by letting him down as gently as she can. Howard lashes out in fury, reveals the plan to her and says some disgusting things to her. He cannot fathom why she would be rejecting him in favour of the cold and callous Chad and is as hurtful as he can muster. When she confronts Chad about this, he laughs at her, mocks her, and leaves her weeping on the bed they’d shared only a few days before.
Howard is hot tempered and emotional. Chad is indifferent.
Importantly, the film does not end there. I won’t reveal what is revealed after this point, only to say that it does drastically change how the movie has played out up until then.
The film is about cruelty and savagery, first from Howard and Chad towards Christine, then from Chad towards Howard. It’s a misanthropic view on the world, how modern lifestyles have only changed the animal nature from the jungle to a skyscraper – a theme that’s driven home by the film’s only music being a percussive theme of jungle drums blasted over with a frenetic saxophone that keeps appearing in the transitions between scenes.
It’s an incredibly well-acted film –Eckhart is astounding as one of the most villainous characters you’ll ever see, but still somehow a compelling and likeable character – even though you’re aware how much you hate him. Matt Malloy is also great as the ineffectual Howard, making him sympathetic enough to buy some loyalty but believably slimy when his true colours are revealed. Christine is written as a device more than a character, but Stacy Edwards performance leaves behind a warm and loving person, endearing and charming and makes you wish she was in a movie where she’d never met the other two.
Neil LaBute would go on to direct some other films about how men treat women, eventually going so far off point as to make The Wicker Man entirely filled with villainous women. Whereas that film may have been misogynistic in its own right, In the Company of Men is asking you to think about the issue a hell of a lot more.
While I suspect LaBute loves Chad a bit too much to keep his distance, the film is very well aware how despicable he is. Everyone knows a Chad or a Howard, or at least sees parts of them in people they know, or even in themselves. And when you’ve watched this movie and rejected their cruelty as awful and despicable, how do you then confront them closer to home? It’s all still relevant – though the laptops have become thinner and the mobile phones smaller, the themes of corporate alienation, misogyny and misanthropy as just as on point as seventeen years ago. Which is perhaps the cruellest thing about the film.