In the Company of Men (Canada, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In the Company of Men is one of those rarest of rare breeds -- a movie that doesn't just ignore Hollywood conventions, but openly flouts them. The film, which premiered to great critical acclaim at 1997's Sundance Film Festival, initially had trouble obtaining a U.S. distributor (for the record, Sony picked it up). The reason is simple: because of its brutally-direct depiction of certain aspects of the current North American social climate, In the Company of Men is anything but entertaining. It's virtually impossible to sit through this film without suffering bouts of intense discomfort, and therein lies its power.

The picture begins as something much different than what it concludes as, and the metamorphosis occurs so gradually that it only becomes apparent in retrospect. Shortly after In the Company of Men opens, the intent appears to be to center on the conflict between the sexes. Ultimately, however, this only a small piece of the much larger pie into which Neil LaBute's directorial debut slices. In the Company of Men widens its focus to encompass the falseness and gamesmanship that underlies many aspects of everyday human interaction. It's a cynical perspective that's all the more disturbing because it's grounded so deeply in reality. The characters here aren't cardboard cut-out stereotypes -- they're the kind of people you can find anywhere inside or outside of the workplace.

Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy) are two very different guys with a great deal in common. They attended the same college, work for the same corporation, and have a history of bad relationships with women. Their combined romantic record reads like a litany of injustices perpetrated on them by females. They have been duped, rejected, neglected, and intentionally misunderstood. Chad, ready to go to war against the entire gender to "restore a little dignity", has a simple, vicious suggestion for revenge. They will find a woman who has trouble getting dates, both take her out, then, after duping her into falling in love with one or both of them, they'll dump her at the same time. Howard is initially reluctant, but Chad talks him into it before locating the perfect target: an attractive-but-deaf typist named Christine (Stacy Edwards), whose disability has caused her self-esteem to erode.

Have you ever seen anyone leap from the top of a skyscraper? Or perhaps watched as two cars collide head-on? The revulsion and horror are indescribable, but the compulsion to look is too great to ignore. No matter how deeply the experience tears at the soul, we cannot avert our eyes. It's a base reaction, but that's human nature. Sitting through In the Company of Men is a cleaner, more guilt-free experience, but it's not entirely dissimilar -- much as we dread viewing what must happen, we cannot tear ourselves away. As painful as this film can be, it is never less than engrossing.

The film doesn't follow a linear path; it evolves continually, which is untrue of many lesser motion pictures. At the beginning, everything seems deceptively simple, but there are layers of complexity underlying each move. As the story unfolds, it becomes difficult to discern a genuine action from a duplicitous one, and once-clear motives grow murky. Slowly, however, the truth begins to assert itself, and, for those who really understand what drives these characters, the ending will be inevitable, not surprising.

Much of LaBute's script is about manipulation and deceit, but he's smart enough to show the characters manipulating each other without turning that manipulation on the audience. Nevertheless, because we become so involved in the interaction between these people, it's impossible for us not to be enflamed by what's transpiring, or to hope that justice comes from heaven in the form of a lightning bolt. Part of us wants a deus ex machina resolution; however, LaBute's solution is more true, albeit less cathartic. And, considering the overall impact of In the Company of Men, it's hardly worth mentioning the writer/director's few rookie mistakes (static camera placement, occasionally stilted word choice).

The lead actors, none of whom are well-known, give impressive performances. Aaron Eckhart, who has slightly more camera time than his fellows, brings a surprising depth of humanity to the charming-but-vengeful mastermind of the plan. As Howard, Matt Malloy does a good job emphasizing his character's internal conflict. The best member of the trio, however, is Stacy Edwards, who brings fire, passion, and fragility to Christine, and wins our hearts in the process.

If you want every movie that you see to be Sleepless in Seattle, avoid In the Company of Men. This movie doesn't take prisoners, and "feel good" is a term no one will ever use to describe it. But In the Company of Men deserves high praise because what it does, it does extraordinarily well. Finally, here's a film with the guts to tell this kind of the story without turning it into a fairy tale. It's rare for any motion picture to generate such a profound sense of disquiet, but the path traversed by LaBute's characters is so bold that it's impossible not to be affected.

In the Company of Men (Canada, 1997)

Director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy, Stacy Edwards
Screenplay: Neil LaBute
Cinematography: Tony Hettinger
Music: Karel Roessingh, Ken Williams
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1997
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 1997-08-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1