Produced by Mark Archer and Stephen Pevner; written and directed by Neil LaBute; cinematography by Tony Hettinger; edited by Joel Plotch; music by Ken Williams and Karel Roessingn; starring Aaron Eckhart, Stacy Edwards, Matt Malloy and Michael Martin. Color, 93 mins. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
If Neil LaBute were playing poker, someone would want to shoot him. His debut film, in the Company of Men, announces itself as a cutthroat round of stud poker involving two seasoned players and a mark. As the cards are laid it becomes apparent that the dealer is holding a pat hand. Even worse, just before the final bets, the rules change to include wild cards. What begins as a high-stakes game of sexual chance is on closer inspection little more than a (phallic) shell game whose slick gestures hide an elusive thematic pea.
Opening at the tail end of summer’s commercial sludgefest, Company was almost universally hailed as a tough, darkly-etched social satire on empty suits behaving badly for fun and profit. According to the director, the story is a simple case of “boys meet girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle.” Allowing for a certain amount of poetic license – only one boy giggles; the girl does not seem crushed – LaBute’s encapsulation sounds like a screwball comedy gone sour, a post-feminist battle of the sexes in which the side with all the weapons gets skewered.
What transpires is at once more ambitious and less clearly motivated. Two former college buddies perched on the same generic corporate ladder are sent for six weeks to a branch office in a nameless heartland city in order to oversee some vague data installation and training program. Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy) are a typical odd couple: the former is brash, deadly handsome, and verbally adept; the latter is a diminutive nerd replete with glasses, receding hairline, and a bad case of the mumbles. What binds them psychologically are deep-seated grievances against women, what they view as the power to manipulate and humiliate them in romantic relationships. They agree that things are getting out of balance and that there’s going to be hell to pay down the line.
Although they decry the absurdity of not being able to tell lewd jokes at work, the gender competition they imagine is primarily sexual, not economic; strangely, the only women evident in the corporate structure are typists. During a long night of drinking and venting en route to their new assignment, Chad coerces Howard into a scheme in which they will target and mutually seduce a woman from the local office, someone so physically disadvantaged and undesirable that she doubts the possibility of romance. Then they will dump her and laugh about it, Chad explains, “until we are very old men.”
They settle on Christine (Stacy Edwards), a clerical temp who is deal lives with her mother, and speaks with a halting nasal drone. The object in this game of payback is to maintain perfect control, a constant theme as well as emblem of the film’s visual design. As Fate or narrative convention would have it, Howard, and possibly Chad, become emotionally involved, forcing them into same-sex competition and eventual betrayal. By the end, Howard is completely undone, a physical wreck who has been demoted to customer relations and reduced to pitiful groveling in front of an unresponsive Christine.
In what the film passes off as biting irony, it is learned that Chad’s account of his mistreatment by a lover is all a hoax. The suggestion is that, despite an overarching viciousness and anger directed at the social order in general, Chad’s ulterior motive in concocting the seduction scheme has been status envy, the subversion of Howard’s superior position in the corporate hierarchy. In other words, the manipulation of sexual power has served as a cloak for intrafraternal warfare: boys hit on girl, boys fuck each other up, boys exchange job descriptions.
Unfortunately for the narrative logic, the rivalry over who will bed Christine is itself a hoax. Howard is presented as needy, cuddly, and awkwardly sincere, a mixture of Woody and Dilbert. Chad is a tad chilly yet, given that both he and Christine look as though they have stepped off the pages of Vogue, there is scarcely a moment’s doubt as to which guy will get the nod; indeed, the only mystery is why Christine is not the object of more romantic attention. For a while at least, Company sticks to its guns, maintaining a strict perspectival focus on the men (although always slightly favoring Chad as mediator of knowledge). In the body of the film, scenes shift between the two men alone and their various romantic encounters with Christine. She is given no independent life and her feelings about her sudden popularity remain a cipher. There is an admirable rigor involved in the decision to cordon off the victim’s subjectivity.
It then becomes all the more shocking, and inexcusable, when the rules of engagement are broken. In the second of two climactic scenes, Chad admits to Christine that Howard’s revelation of the pact between the suitors is true. After Chad departs, the camera lingers on a two-minute overhead closeup of Christine’s silent agony, the most blatantly mawkish and invasive shot in the entire movie (Oh, did I mention that one-eyed jacks are wild?). The same formal misprision is repeated, and amplified, in the final scene as, weeks later, Howard comes barging into a cavernous bank where Christine is now temping. As he entreats her to give him another chance, his voice is abruptly deleted from the soundtrack, making us privy not only to Christine’s optical but also her auditory perspective.
These calculated lapses in the film’s stylistic program would perhaps feel less damaging were it not for the insistent emphasis on hard-edged, almost clinical disengagement from contact with the characters’ inner lives, a method LaBute refers to as minimalism. The majority of scenes unfold in long-take, fixed-camera, frontal compositions-many from unnaturally high or low angles – which display the two predators like insects in a museum exhibit. The physical environment they inhabit parallels the impersonal, functionless work they presumably perform: not quite colorless but antiseptic surfaces, a series of compartmentalized spaces in which the exercise of gratuitous insult is muffled by an aura of synthetic uniformity (a design stunningly realized by cinematographer Tony Hettinger). The effect is reminiscent of Kubrick’s visions of male technocracy, a comparison heightened by two scenes of male intimacy staged in the executive bathroom – think of The Shining or Full Metal Jacket.
Further, a dynamic tension between aggression and compartmentalization is established by a clipped cadence of six discrete sequences or chapters corresponding to the progression of weeks, bracketed by a prologue and epilogue. Paradoxically, the degree of distance and control inscribed in the image eventually registers as a mirror for the consciousness of control-freak Chad. In this sense, not only is Company’s narrative economy weighted towards Chad’s willful deceptions, its visual patterning corresponds to Chad’s buffed, meticulous demeanor.
Since Howard never has a fighting chance, and Chad is virtually Jack the Ripper in Brooks Brothers garb, it is hard to understand what critics found so controversial, incendiary, or instructive about Company’s discourse on misogyny. Rather than being implicated in the attitudes or behaviors of the schematic seducers, the male viewer can shrug off any stigma of identification by simply dismissing the characters as either patently pathetic or borderline psychopathic. If there is a need to articulate the relationship between masculine self-definition and the wielding of sexual power within the workplace, that goal is surely not achieved by creating characters so exaggerated that any possible defense of their actions becomes moot.
Company does contain one truly incendiary scene, but like much else in the film it turns out to be a red herring. In a private conference, Chad interrogates an African-American intern about a minor infraction, dangling the possibility of corporate advancement if he has the balls. When the intern responds affirmatively, Chad demands to see if they are literally big enough, and after some hesitation – and assurance from Chad that he is no homo – the poor guy obliges. Are we to conclude that Chad’s sexism is integrally linked with racism? That his competition with Howard is actually grounded in inchoate homoerotic attraction? The film pursues neither question; instead, they are merely tantalizing diversions, like the grand flourish of a card sharp as he slides one off the bottom of the deck.
A frequent connection has been made between LaBute’s film and the work of David Mamet, an insight that seems dead-on, if not in the way it was intended. At both his best and his worst, Mamet is a practitioner of what might be called the slippery allegory, in which individual characters are invested with abstract social or psychological or moral attributes. In traditional – as opposed to postmodern – literary allegories such as Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a character who stands for, say, Christian virtue will encounter a series of figures and situations that will test and ultimately define the ideal nature of the abstract concept. In Mamet’s plays and films, there is often the veneer of a hidden parable, some ethical lesson to be derived which remains just hazy enough to allow for conflicting interpretations. The dehumanizing, degrading but also possibly redemptive rituals of persuasion enacted in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) is a useful example. When the social issue at stake is defined too narrowly or clumsily, and the deck of allegorical traits is stacked from the beginning, as in the egregious fakery of Oleanna’s (1994) gender struggle, the house of cardboard figures collapses under its own weight.
Something similar occurs in Company. It is never clear whether the trope of corporate competition as directed by Chad is a displacement for or a generative model of male heterosexual rage. Are these two behavioral trajectories being equated, paralleled, or situated in a causal chain (i.e., the frustrations of mindless, alienated labor produce sexual predation; or alternatively, the inability to find romantic completion leads to cutthroat business tactics)? The deaf typist whose limited powers of speech prohibit dissimulation, the nameless computer application of a nameless corporation located in a nameless city, all conspire to place the drama of In the Company of Men in a suprarealistic realm. Chad and Howard are not to be taken literally, as real people, but as exemplars of…what? The film can never quite decide; there is something up its sleeve and the suspicion is that it is nothing more, or less, than the long arm of patriarchy.