‘Are all men bastards… or just misunderstood?’, asks the tagline of In the Company of Men, Neil Labute’s directorial debut. Well, there’s no misunderstanding Chad (Aaron Eckhart), a blowhard junior executive with an inveterate hatred of women.
He’s introduced to us in an airport departure lounge, pacing the aisle as he rants to his colleague Howard (Matt Molloy). Just looking at them reveals their dynamic: Chad is a typical ‘Chad’ – blonde and boastful with a strong, dimpled chin; while Howard has a naff side parting, narrow shoulders and a stature no greater than 5ft 7. I don’t mean to insult the appearance of Matt Malloy, but this is a film about primal nastiness where appearance always matters.
Howard sits and listens to Chad’s incendiary stream of consciousness, which attacks everything from young recruits eyeing up his position to the ruthlessness of women. It is the latter point that Chad stresses, explaining how his girlfriend left without explanation; “she even took the frame of my American Gigolo poster”, he casually laments. Howard concurs with his tone for he has just been rejected himself.
Later, over a few drinks, Chad makes the following proposal to Howard:
“Say we were to find some gal…. and this person is just vulnerable as hell, you know, young thing, wallflower type… and we just hit her, small talk, dinner date, flowers… and then one day out goes the rug and us pulling it hard…trust me, she’ll be reaching for the sleeping pills, and we will be laughing about this until we are very old men.”
And with that the ‘game’ begins, because instead of challenging him, Howard meekly agrees, “I mean it’s funny… it’s just way out there… aw shit man, yeah I’m in.’ Their relationship is a skin-crawlingly realised example of bully and minion; you’ve seen it before and you may have even lived it. Of course, the dynamic’s sole purpose is to amuse the bully, only in this case Chad is better described as a psychopath – conniving and deceitful to the bone.
Chad soon finds their target, a deaf girl in the office called Christine (Stacy Edwards). Intrigued by her condition, Chad and other smug middle managers trade cheap, cruel jokes about her like schoolboys, enjoying whatever petty authority they believe they have in their trivial corporate domain.
It takes mere minutes to see that Chad is a bastard, but it is when he begins his seduction of Christine that he becomes almost comically unlikeable. He uses this faux-shy shtick with great skill, endearing himself with effusive bursts of laughter and a shit-eating grin that comes so very naturally to him. Slowly but surely, his deception unravels with hateful effect, yet the blade is really twisted when Chad reveals further layers of his deception in the film’s closing moments – more on that later (no spoilers).
All of this astute nastiness comes from writer/director Neil LaBute, appropriately referred to as ‘American theatre’s reigning misanthrope’. He creates a monster of uncommon familiarity in Chad, loading him with the waspish venom he spits at the world, not just women. It is important to note this because while Chad is undoubtedly a misogynist – a fact that is tolerated and even abetted by his colleagues – Chad’s actions go beyond the typical notions of ‘toxic masculinity’. This man is not representative of the average male chauvinist – he is a psychopathic manipulator with contempt for seemingly everyone. Few people would even think to orchestrate his emotional cruelty, which he inflicts on both women and men.
A woman appears to be the sole target of Chad and Howard’s sick game, but LaBute’s depiction of misogyny is part of a wider indictment of workplace culture and its toxic, political drudgery. In one ranting monologue, Chad attacks women as ‘meat and gristle and hatred, just simmering’, unaware that he’s projecting the feelings of himself and almost everyone around him. This is what the pabulum and platitudes of corporatism can do to people – reduce them to cynical, resentful nubs. Apart from Christine, that is, blissfully unaware that her environment conspires to hurt her.
But then there’s that ending, which will not be spoiled here. All I will say is that it confirms Chad as an individual of pathological malice. In fact, it almost overrides the film’s themes of gender and the workplace. Ultimately, In the Company of Men may be a meditation on personal evil.
And on a note as dour as that, I’d urge you to watch In the Company of Men, a 90s indie that’s truly deserving of ‘hidden gem’ status. The only problem is that it is a particularly well-hidden gem for UK residents as it is neither online nor on DVD/Blu-ray. A project for the BFI, perhaps?