Neil LaBute’s disturbing black comedy, In the Company of Men (1997), was easily one of the most provocative and controversial films of the 1990s. A romantic office triangle involving two white collar workers and a deaf secretary, the film ended up winning the Filmmaker’s Trophy for Best Dramatic Feature at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, but nevertheless had trouble finding domestic distribution. Most distributors, including Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, worried that the film would offend audiences, especially women, before Sony Pictures Classics eventually decided to take the risk. According to LaBute, “One of the Sony guys said it made them sick when they first saw it, but then they realized that reaction was a business opportunity.”
Like To Sleep With Anger and Boys Don’t Cry, In the Company of Men uses a more conventional structure for its unusual subject matter. By pushing the limits of acceptable speech and behavior, In the Company of Men shares a number of qualities with edgier indie films such as Reservoir Dogs, Happiness, and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Although LaBute’s debut feature can be read, at least at first glance, as a backlash against the more progressive aspects of independent film and its bent toward political correctness, the film’s more provocative elements – its misogyny, racial insensitivity, and exploitation of the physically challenged – actually function as a deceptive masquerade to explore the darker recesses of the white male psyche. As a result, In the Company of Men offers one of the most devastating cinematic critiques of male power relations by dissecting the dog-eat-dog mentality that has come to epitomize what it takes to achieve success in the white male-dominated world of corporate business.
Prior to making his debut film, LaBute had a successful career as a playwright, having attended both the Graduate Dramatic Writing Program at NYU and the Sundance Institute’s Playwright’s Lab. Ted Hope of Good Machine was interested in producing In the Company of Men, but LaBute decided to go forward with the production on his own when a couple of friends invested an insurance windfall of $25,000 in the project. In the Company of Men was conceived as a classic low-budget film – a three-actor ensemble piece with a low shooting ratio and a minimum number of locations. Although the film was shot in LaBute’s own hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana over the course of eleven days, In the Company of Men, like Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989), lacks the strong regional flavor of many other independent films. The locations, in fact, are minimal and have a completely generic feel to them. Much of the film takes place in office cubicles, conference rooms, men’s rooms, hallways, restaurants, and airport waiting rooms. As LaBute comments, “I’m intrigued by minimalism and I wanted the look of the film to have an antiseptic and timeless feel. The business world has looked relatively the same since the fifties, turning it into a bit of a cliché, so I tried stylistically to be very timeless.” On a visual level, In the Company of Men emphasizes stylization rather than heightened realism, which is reinforced by the minimal post-production sound work.
The plot of In the Company of Men appears to be rather straightforward. The film tells the story of two young white collar workers – old college buddies – who get transferred to a regional office for six weeks and concoct a plan to victimize an unsuspecting female co-worker, who happens to have a disability. Chad (Aaron Eckhart) is a handsome jock, while Howard (Matt Molloy) is something of a wimp. LaBute’s description of the two main characters provides an interesting contrast. He describes Chad as: “29 years old, dark, tallish. The mouth of Belmondo and the eyes of Caligula.” About Howard, he writes: “He is 28, more boyishly attractive than handsome, perhaps shorter than he might wish to be.” According to LaBute, “It’s a simple story: boys meets girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle.” But such a description hardly does justice to what actually happens during the course of the film, namely, that gender politics merely provide a subterfuge for office politics. As it turns out, Chad’s misogynistic game provides a deliberate smokescreen for his real ambition, which is to knock Howard out of his position as project boss and replace him. That is the film’s major twist, as well as its redeeming quality as an independent film, because this has the effect of shifting the subject of the film from being about sexist male behavior to a study of men’s relations with each other.
In the Company of Men involves a short setup followed by intertitles that indicate each of the six weeks, and an epilogue that occurs “weeks later.” In the published version of the script, LaBute describes In the Company of Men as having a five-act structure,” but he never delineates the actual breakdown. The film nevertheless conforms to the traditional three-act paradigm. The inciting incident occurs when Chad proposes the sadistic game to Howard and he drunkenly agrees to be part of it at 11 minutes. After Chad locates the perfect victim in Christine (Stacy Edwards), Howard’s date with her at roughly 24 minutes serves as the first turning point because it signals his actual complicity in the scheme. The entire middle act concerns Chad and Howard’s attempts to outmaneuver each other in the competition to win Christine’s affections. The second turning point occurs at 71 minutes when Howard retaliates against Christine for rebuffing him by informing her of Chad’s malicious game. The climax happens at the point of the major plot twist, namely, when Chad reveals his own secret to Howard. The structure of the film thus breaks down into a first act of 24 minutes, a middle act of 46 minutes, and a third act of 22 minutes.
Given LaBute’s background in theater, the conventional structure of the film should hardly come as a surprise. LaBute’s description of his own writing process, however, suggests that he relies very heavily on intuition, and that he doesn’t believe that everything can be pre-plotted in advance. As he told Filmmaker, “I will often set out with an idea, a set of characters. I’m not a person to put the little yellow Post-its all across one wall of my bedroom and plot out a story. I like to see where the road will lead – [an approach] which can lead to a lot of backtracking, revisions. But I’m not afraid of that. I welcome it. My biggest maxim is probably, ‘Whatever works.’” LaBute emphasizes that excitement and surprise are two of the most critical elements in writing screenplays. This would seem to work against an overly formulaic and predetermined approach to the material, which is why he tries not to “storyboard it out.” As he explains: “I want to be as excited [when writing it] as someone seeing it for the first time. The great hook in writing is for an audience to say, ‘What happens next?’ To continually say that from beginning to end. And I want that to happen to me as well.” Such a position emphasizes an important fact about screenwriting, namely, that writing a screenplay is a creative process of discovery rather than a mere application of rules.
Even though In the Company of Men is predicated on an unexpected and surprising plot twist, LaBute’s film works more as a character study, as Chad and Howard become immersed in a game of cat and mouse with their chosen prey, Christine, as well as with each other. The men represent two sides of the same coin, which is actually how LaBute describes them: “the ego and id of one person.” Which of them is the protagonist? Or are they both? Of the two, Chad is clearly the more dominant character, the one who pushes the story forward and makes things happen. But it is hard to discuss his character in terms of goals because Chad has a secret hidden agenda, and because his motivations never really change. The real surprise involving his character is precisely that there are no surprises – he, in fact, turns out to be as just as cynical and opportunistic as he appears. For this reason, it would be hard for a viewer to identify with him as a protagonist. In fact, he displays exactly the kind of negative qualities we expect from an antagonist. Howard, on the other hand, essentially remains an extremely weak but vulnerable character throughout the course of the film. He is clearly no match for Chad, especially on the romantic front, in terms of the competition for Christine. Nevertheless, Howard’s character does undergo a major change once he falls for her, and, as the clear underdog, he does manage to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the viewer – at least initially. On some level, though, Howard also lacks enough redeeming qualities to serve as the lone protagonist.
If neither Chad nor Howard seem to function as the sole protagonist in the story, perhaps they might be considered what Kristin Thompson would call “dual protagonists,”or an example of a Plural-protagonist because they share similar goals. But once Christine becomes involved, the very nature of the love triangle forces the two men into a fierce competition. This changes the situation, pushing the men to have contrary goals, even though neither Howard nor the viewer grasps Chad’s real intentions fully until the very end. For this reason, I would argue, that it probably makes more sense to view Chad and Howard as forming what Robert McKee calls a “Multiprotagonist.” In some sense, each of them serves as the other’s antagonist, not only in relation to the romance character, but also in the hyper-competitive world of the workplace.
As a combined Multiprotagonist, neither Chad nor Howard are particularly likeable, which runs directly counter to the advice found in the manuals. Chad, whose character LaBute establishes in the very first scene, is an angry suit. At the airport, he is rude and hostile to women who pass by laughing. Chad complains about being mistreated by women, but he also rails against people in the workplace. He describes the bosses as “bastards” and the young guys as “vultures” waiting to displace him from his job. Chad clearly knows how to push Howard’s buttons, as he discusses the threat posed by the new person at the office. Chad refers to him as “big guy,” in contrast to Howard, who is rather short. Chad also mentions that he’s an ex-baseball player, “a hell of a shortstop,” which takes on particular meaning later on when Howard fibs to Christine that he was on a baseball scholarship when he blew his arm out during sophomore year in college.
Baseball actually figures prominently in the film. A co-worker (the one Howard sends off to Montana for the holiday weekend) complains to Chad, “If I could throw a curve ball, I mean, a really good one – just that, nothing else, no education, nothing – none of this would matter.” Sports represents the idealized career for these men. As the same person puts it, “Play in the big leagues for maybe ten years, retire to Oahu.” For these yuppie jocks, the business world represents nothing more than a consolation prize for those who cannot make it in the truly privileged world of professional athletic competition.
The irony, of course, is that these men are actually never seen working at any point in the film. They are usually too busy telling sexist jokes, practicing their golf putting, eating, smoking, standing on line at the copier, or loitering in the bathroom. They make personal phone calls and do other forms of personal business, even slipping out to have sex with the secretaries on company time. Chad chews out the African-American intern, Keith, for chasing other interns around the break room and hanging out with the shipping clerks, but there is no difference between what the interns are doing and the actions of Chad and Howard. On the other hand, the women, such as Christine, are seen typing, and the ones who seem to be keeping the office operational. In fact, women are virtually nonexistent in the film other than Christine. They often appear only as disembodied voices in this otherwise male-inscribed world.
Chad warns Howard numerous times to “watch his back,” but Howard is too distracted by his own personal problems to pay much attention to what Chad is telling him. Chad is upfront with Howard about his own cynical value system: “I do not give a shit. Not about anybody. A family member. The job. None of it. Couldn’t care less . . . .” He shares that revelation with Howard early on in the film, but Howard ignores the warning. Later, when Chad humiliates the black intern by making him display his testicles, he explains, “Listen, you got a pair, the kind men are carrying around, practically wear ’em on your sleeve! ’S what business is all about . . . what’s sporting the nastiest sac of venom. And who is willing to use it.” Chad proves that he is clearly up to the task.
When Chad finds out from his co-worker, John, that Christine is deaf, he makes fun of her in an incredibly cruel-hearted way. Chad’s ridicule of a physically-challenged secretary would be considered despicable anywhere outside the office. But Chad expresses the same contempt for his co-workers as he does toward Christine. As he sees it, everyone is a prick, a bastard, a cocksucker, or a cunt. He rails against everyone inside the company. Chad acts very friendly towards John, one of the few other employees we meet, but he has nothing but scorn for him once he’s in the men’s room with Howard. Chad comments, “’S John Merrick, that’s the only thing I can think of, the whole time . . . I am sitting across from the fucking Elephant Man.”
LaBute does not really attempt to provide any psychological explanation for Chad’s behavior other than his gender. Chad says to Howard: “Let’s hurt somebody,” a line that LaBute credits with providing the starting point for the script. When Howard begs to know why Chad completely screwed him over at the end of the film, Chad tells him very cooly, “Because I could.” Chad is governed by power rather than feelings – it is a case of Darwinism, plain and simple. But there is a pathological aspect to his cruelty. This becomes even more apparent when he admits that he used Howard’s hotel room when he had sex with Christine in the hopes that Howard would find her there. When Chad hurts Christine by acknowledging that he’s been playing games with her, he immediately wants to know what she feels. And when Chad humiliates the young African-American intern by making him pull down his pants so he can gauge the size of his testicles, he asks him afterwards, “Alright, great . . . (beat) You feel okay?” At the end of the film, when Howard shows up at Chad’s new townhouse and they discuss the fact that Howard has told Christine about the game, Chad quizzes him, “So, how’d it feel? Hmm?”After he devastates Howard by acknowledging to him into what has actually transpired, Chad asks him once again, “So, how’s it feel, Howie? How’s it feel to really hurt someone?” Because he seems to feel nothing himself, Chad constantly needs to seek confirmation from his victims. The importance of the question is highlighted by the fact that it is actually the very first line of dialogue in the script.
Howard, of course, is not all that much different from Chad. We first see him in the bathroom, nursing a wound he received for making an inappropriate pass at a woman at the airport. Because Chad does not attempt to hide the fact that he is a horrible person, the viewer tends to have greater identification with Howard, at least initially. But there’s actually very little difference between the behavior of the two men, except that Howard can at least feel pain – he seems terrified of rejection – whereas Chad views it as a loss of control, the worst mistake any male could possibly make. Chad announces this very early on, “Never lose control. ’S the key, Howard, that is the total key to the universe. Trust me . . .” It is obvious right from the start, that Howard will be no match for Chad, who promptly manipulates him into going along with his plan. Chad appeals to a juvenile sense of comradeship as the bait to get Howard to conspire with him. This will be something they’ll always be able to look back on. It will always represent their personal triumph, no matter what insult or injury happens to them later in life.
Howard’s difficulties with women go much deeper than making inappropriate passes at women in the airport. As he walks down the corridor with Chad, he reveals his own insecurities involving rejection in his previous relationship with a woman named Melanie. The first time we glimpse Howard in the new job, he rants at his mother on the phone about Melanie. Although Melanie has resorted to calling his mother, Howard still refuses to deal with her – at one point, he even refers to Melanie as a “bitch.” But it is not until later in the film, in the jewelry store, that we get the truly ugly picture of their breakup when Howard has the jeweler clean and repair the ring he has forcibly taken back from her. Rather than being a victim who deserves our sympathy, this monologue reveals the fact that Howard has a physically abusive side. He also tries to use force with Christine in the car. As LaBute describes the action in the script: “He [Howard] slams the lock down with a free hand and lands nearly on top of her, holding her down. He tries to kiss her as she screams at him. He fails.” Christine tries to get away from him, but Howard becomes even more violent: “Suddenly HOWARD grabs her jaw in his hand, holding her as she fights to pull away.”
Howard does other nasty things. He asks the wrong woman out and then leaves her dangling once he finds out the mistake. He also lies to Christine about why he’s late for their date at the zoo. He tries to impress her the first time they go out by fabricating a story about being on a baseball scholarship in college. When Christine tries to stop him from proposing and confesses her love for Chad, Howard does not try to spare her feelings, but instead retaliates by saying some of the most hurtful things imaginable. Howard tells Christine that Chad loathes her: “He detests you and your pathetic “retard” voice . . . ’s what he calls it.” Even after this, Howard still attempts to pass himself off as the good guy, but what is patently obvious is that Howard considers Christine to be his inferior, and he tells her as much in no uncertain terms.
In contrast to the brash and arrogant Chad, Howard seems to suffer from both a lack of self-confidence and feelings of inadequacy. When he tells Chad about his problems with Melanie, Howard reveals a tendency to become obsessed with women and an inability to deal with any form of rejection. This allows Chad to concoct the scheme that will eventually place Howard in a no-win competition with him for the attention of Christine. Chad uses Howard’s distraction with Christine in order to sabotage him in the workplace by failing to fax key documents at crucial points in the project. Howard’s pathetic attempt to provide business leadership also borders on the comical. In the one meeting that we observe, Howard not only confuses Jonestown with Jamestown, but when he tries to divide the workers into two teams, Chad quickly interjects, “I thought you wanted to do the projection thing.” After he ends up getting demoted, Howard attempts to reassert himself by venting to a colleague. The co-worker, however, deflates his anger, by asking, “What’re you talking about?” In fact, Howard falls apart shortly afterwards.
Besides the strength of its characterization, In the Company of Men works largely as a result of its energetic dialogue. Labute’s dialogue has a concise, constructed quality, which is masked by elements of realism. LaBute, in fact, refers to it as “. . . a kind of hyperreality, this kind of language that I’ve admired in certain playwrights where it sounds exactly like people, yet nothing like [the way] people talk.” There are shades of Pinter as well as David Mamet.
LaBute’s dialogue is not only continually shocking, but enormously funny. Chad, in particular, loves to hear himself talk, and true to his last name – Piercewell (an obvious sexual pun) – he launches into long, venomous monologues in which words become his main weapon of hatred and deceit. Chad, for instance, pretends to offer helpful professional guidance to a minority intern, but he is really threatened by what he perceives to be Keith’s privileged status within the company. By subsequently chewing Keith out, correcting his pronunciation and demanding to see the size of his testicles, Chad’s words belie his true intention in this situation, which is to use his power to humiliate the black intern in a an utterly brutal and sadistic way. Chad also peppers his conversation with strangely constructed bromides, such as the remark he makes to Howard about their game with Christine: “’S a serpentine road, we travel, this life . . . see where it takes us.”
In the Company of Men seems most indebted to sex, lies, and videotape in being able to capitalize on an unorthodox script that requires only a minimum number of locations and a small ensemble cast. By shooting on a shoestring budget and employing minimal camera work – alternating between medium and wide shots, and sustained long takes – as well as a pared-down mise-en-scene, LaBute is able to focus most of his attention on simply telling what amounts to a compelling story with a whopper of a twist. Although his study of white-male venom and deceit proved shocking and controversial when it was commercially released, In the Company of Men nevertheless grossed a respectable $3 million at the box office. While Hollywood tends to avoid controversy in its attempt to appeal to the widest audience possible, independent films are generally not forced to operate under such constraints. Even though LaBute’s film had a tendency to polarize audiences, as Sony Pictures realized, that also turned out to its major selling point. The subsequent success of In the Company of Men simply proved that mature audiences in the late 1990s had a strong appetite for more provocative fare than what was being provided by the major studios.