In the Company of Men

Ten years out of college, Chad (Aaron Eckhart), the lethal white-collar company man at the black heart of In the Company of Men (Sony Pictures Classics), hates the world he has bought into. He hates the men he has to suck up to every day in his anonymous, every-city office. He hates the younger men who want his job. And mostly, he hates women, with a thrillingly bilious, articulate honesty that makes him the most shocking, yet mesmerizing, contemporary character I have seen on the screen in a long time. That bitterness ”makes me want to f— somebody up but good,” Chad tells Howard (Matt Malloy), drawing his office colleague into an outrageous scheme: The two of them will flatter a random, vulnerable woman with attention, win her heart, and then dump her, hard. ”She’ll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week,” Chad predicts, in a voice silky with malice, ”and we will be laughing about this until we are very old men.”

The wellspring of rage and cruelty first-time writer-director Neil LaBute taps into in this stunning, unsettling, beautifully written drama (it won an award from fellow filmmakers at this year’s Sundance festival) is so bottomless and fresh that admiration washes away all affront at this ballsy depiction of man’s inhumanity to woman, and man. It’s as if LaBute has set up a dare: You wanna see man at his worst, I’ll give you man at his worst, and you won’t be able to look away. Chad and Howard do undeniably hateful things — and yet at some point, the awfulness of their actions attains a level of sick humor. And then the dark hilarity burns off, giving way to a profound insight: The wounds Chad inflicts on Howie (as subtly and devastatingly as a lover) are even deeper than those he aims at hapless Christine (Stacy Edwards), the shy, deaf (!) secretary the two choose as their mark. (At one point, wooing the woman, Chad summons up a hilariously perfect imitation of women’s magazine-speak: ”I want to nurture [our relationship] and see this blossom.”) Eckhart — like the rest of the cast, a relative unknown — turns in a star-making performance; Malloy and Edwards make effective pas de deux partners.

The director stages Men in composed tableaux as evocatively mournful as paintings; if Edward Hopper were daubing at the loneliness of salarymen in 1990s America, he’d come up with these neutral-colored, impersonal cubicles, restaurants, and rented cars. The coconspirators (armored in white shirts and ties, with faces bland as legal pads) converse in an airport lounge, a men’s room, and, in one long, archetypal scene, on the roof, with no view except more of the same. ”Women,” Chad hisses. ”Inside they’re all the same — meat and gristle and hatred, just simmering. And I for one have had it with their s—, know what I mean?”

Do you? In the end, the misogyny — the all-purpose misanthropy — of In the Company of Men suggests signs of enlightenment. To identify the malaise is to be able to stand apart from it. LaBute lets poisons flow. Maybe healing will follow.

In the Company of Men
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