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The intrigue and controversy surrounding filmmaker Neil LaBute has always fascinated me. His penchant for biting social commentary with an unwavering slant to the maliciousness of people is what came across in my light research of the man. Not until I visited his superb The Shape of Things, a couple years after its release, did I finally enter his world—and I wanted to stay. The things he was saying were harsh and cruel, but at the same time so steeped in truth and reality. So many want to show the good in people, the redemption we all hold dear; LaBute, however, shows us what we really feel, shows us the selfish vanity we know in our hearts is out there, yet try and pretend is not. Unfortunately, my second experience with the playwright came from Lakeview Terrace, sadly a second foray into Hollywood-fare that loses his unique touch. While Nurse Betty looked like a paycheck to allow for more personal work, it appears now he has become part of the machine. And that is a shame because after watching his debut film, In the Company of Men, I can’t help believing he may be one of the smartest writers in the biz.

Here we have corporate culture at its worst in the 90s; two men, a decade out of college, going city to city and making their money by giving presentations and telling others what to do. It’s a high-pressure job with what appears to be small reward. Both Chad and Howard are slowly becoming fed up as they see younger men rise quicker and with less work ethic; they see their wives and girlfriends leave them without warning, breaking their hearts as their souls are destroyed in the workplace. It has become too much for Chad and he is looking for revenge. What better way to do so than at the demise of a girl, the fairer sex in which he says is composed of women “all the same, meat and gristle and hatred just simmering”? What if they could lead on some poor soul who has reached a point in her life where the prospect of a relationship or a future full of love is unattainable and than destroy her for sport to watch the reaction? Hell, they’ll always be able to tell each other afterwards, “They never got me the way we got her”.

The writing is cynical and witty; this is one of the blackest comedies you will ever view. I literally felt bad laughing at times, but it is constructed so smartly, you just can’t help yourself. Howard is a wormy romantic who knows Chad, the epitome of alpha male, from college and has stayed close through the years. He would never partake in a game such as this if not for the tale of his stronger buddy being cleaned out by his girl, even having the frame around his American Gigolo poster taken from him. If the sort of heartbreak Howard feels can happen to his friend too, well than maybe the female race deserves to be taught a lesson; unfortunately for temp Christine, that exercise will be brought upon her in full. She is the perfect fodder for their six week revenge plan, not only is she attractive, but she is deaf. Handicapped to the point where she wears headphones to appear distracted when unable to hear someone walk by, she is so far removed from the dating scene that the advances of two successful men in the office may just be too strong for her to pass up. Both men work together to show her so much affection that she will have to fall for at least one. Love, however, wasn’t anticipated to play a role in the proceedings.

As the weeks advance, the dates become more intimate, the bonds stronger. Sitting and watching the advancement starts to make it tough to discern true motivations. Are Chad and Howard really falling for her or are they that good at pretending in order to make the breakup as devastating as possible? Howard may not be getting as close physically to the girl, but his actions express a longing and need to be with her. Chad, on the other hand, working his magic and getting her in bed, has acquired the phrase he’s been working towards, having her tell him she loves him. He responds in kind, but is it real? We will have to wait and see in week six whether the game has gone too far or whether it has gone just as planned. That statement may seem cruel, because the fact the ruse began at all means it went too far—they are playing with an innocent’s emotions and heart for sport—but in the context of the film, you do start to buy into it and want to see what kind of fallout will result.

LaBute does come from the stage and it shows here in his first film as most scenes are constructed from long takes and static setups. One moment on the rooftop has Chad almost flub a line, but they keep going, either to keep a sense of realism or save money on reshooting the exchange. Definitely shot on the cheap, it becomes the job of the actors to perform at the highest level, and they do not disappoint. Stacy Edwards is amazing as Christine, both in her portrayal of a deaf woman and in the emotional turmoil she must go through from start to finish. Also remember too, see is deceiving them by going out with both at the same time, selfishly keeping her own happiness above them knowing the truth. But it is Matt Malloy and Aaron Eckhart, as Howard and Chad respectively, that really carry the film. Malloy is a ball of nerves and insecurities, yet when he needs to be, either lying to the girl or venting to his friend, can compose himself to a man of power and force. Needing incentive to be confident, it is in him, but the moments where his insecurities rear their head shine above all else; never able to control the situation, he slowly devolves into a version of Chad.

Chad, conversely, doesn’t have a weak bone to his name. He says at the end that he can sell anyone, and it is true. The lines he utters are pure gold and I can see why it was hard for him to get work early in his career. Eckhart played a prick so well, no one wanted the controversy surrounding this role to take anything away from the new work. He is so conniving, so manipulative, yet with a smile that can charm us all. This film exists due to his performance and the revelations at the conclusion only cement him as one of the best screen villains ever. I’d love to see this story on stage, because The Shape of Things blew away its brilliant screen counterpart when I saw a college production, and I can only imagine watching this acted out in front of me would do the same if not more.

In the Company of Men 8/10

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