A darkly comedic film all about how unpleasant it is being in the working place, one that only reflects a harsher reality from showing the employees as they are. This is a film all about the evils present within a space that feels mandatory to the way we all move forward in life and how it breaks human spirit in the process. When you know that already about playwright Neil LaBute’s directorial debut, it already gives you an insight about what watching In the Company of Men will be like – for everything about it that we find so funny also reflects a darker reality that perhaps may be invisible to our own eyes because it is made to feel so normal. The commentary of a film like In the Company of Men would already be enough to set foot Neil LaBute to a promising start as a filmmaker but it’s a shame that ever since he has not managed to live up to something of this level ever since. It’s hard enough to imagine how someone can follow up something that is so rooted in cynicism almost like this, especially being a first film.
Aaron Eckhart and Matt Molloy play two coworkers who are frustrated with the influence that women have in their lives. Eckhart plays Chad, who is the more abusive of the two, for his life thrives upon the manners to which he continually pushes his own subordinates to the edge and is also a dedicated misogynist. Molloy plays Howard, the more passive of the two, and he has only recently come out from a bad relationship together with his ex-girlfriend. Looking to take their frustrations with females out in some way or another, they scheme to enter the life of a deaf employee, Christine, for they only see her as being vulnerable to damage and eventually “destroy” her. If this film were told under the wrong hands it could easily have made this cynical premise go terribly wrong but in the care of Neil LaBute what In the Company of Men provides does not only live up to that cynicism but also criticizes how the world in which it is set within has come to accept this depravity as being normal.
LaBute’s film is set within a system and its characters are in some way being damaged by how they function as a mere part that keeps it going. In order to perfectly capture such a cynicism, the workplace setting is crucial for this film is all about a game that people play in order to make sure that they know will give themselves the feeling of being on top of everyone else around them, at the expense of others. But that’s part of what makes In the Company of Men such an uncomfortable experience, because it feels like sitting at an office desk being made to deal with co-workers who care about nothing other than themselves, and what this film reminds oneself of only makes it feel all the more painful. On the surface, this could easily have been made as a tale about the competitive nature of the workplace but LaBute goes further down in order to capture another stigma that such a lifestyle would end up placing on the lives of oneself.
A good part of what makes In the Company of Men a wholly uncomfortable experience is the way in which it plays around with a role reversal – presenting its two male protagonists at the center of everything and yet you find yourself seeing everything from the eyes of Christine. As the nature of the film already takes a turn for a more vicious route, what stands out in particular is the way in which it breaks down the effects of normalized misogyny. It all comes clear from how you see Howard’s lack of comfort for having taken part of the scheme, but he is never a character you sympathize with because of what he took part in. You already feel every bit of pain that Christine had suffered, and there’s that gut instinct that her treatment only makes you want to vomit because she may be deaf, yet she’s still strong enough to decide on her own terms the direction she wishes to take in her life. If anything, this combined with the performance of Stacy Edwards proves itself to be the best aspect of the film.
I feel like I’m being bothered by the fact that the two leads are played so well, especially Aaron Eckhart’s. Every moment I sat there laughing at their own exploits only led to something that had ended up feeling so ugly at the very end. But it’s wise enough on Neil LaBute’s end to recognize who was truly the victim at the end of the day, and the sad thing to think about is how a lot of it still seems normal in the way to which our world works. I’m still trying to picture what it must have been like to have seen a film like In the Company of Men back in 1997, where it may not be immediately recognized by our world but even after watching it today, we haven’t truly sought out to improve the problems caused by this toxic sense of male insecurity. But as Neil LaBute has shown it to be, all of this happens to be part of a corporate system, one in which humanity only finds itself damaged all the more in the process. And it’s not just in that environment too, it happens everywhere.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Sony Pictures Classics.
Directed by Neil LaBute
Screenplay by Neil LaBute
Produced by Mark Archer, Stephen Pevner
Starring Aaron Eckhart, Matt Molloy, Stacy Edwards
Release Year: 1997
Running Time: 97 minutes