In the Company of Men
directed by Neil LaBute
(Sony, 1997)

In the Company of Men was rated R for language "and emotional abuse." And rightly so. By the time this movie is over, you will not only see the effects of emotional abuse on this movie's characters -- you will feel like something of a victim, yourself.

Which is part of what makes this (very black) black comedy so brilliant.

Don't get me wrong. This movie delivers a few good laughs, but it is not exactly a walk in the park. It is, perhaps, the darkest portrait of male antics ever to reach the silver screen. It is cynicism, squared. And it is not for everyone. The two male characters are emotional piranhas; the female character is their victim, and their toy. It's not your feel-good, first-date flick.

That said, it is also an unusually well-acted, well-scripted, well-directed psychological drama/comedy that swept the 1997 Sundance Film Festival away.

The story is depressingly diabolical. We meet Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), two thirtysomething middle-management types who are sent on a six-month business trip to oversee a long-term project. Frustrated by the disappointments and pressures of their lonely corporate ladder-climbing, they go out on a drinking binge, and make a startling, drunken pact: They will find a vulnerable young woman, whom they will both seduce -- and then jilt.

Or, in Chad's words, "Let's hurt somebody!"

It's an ugly premise. We watch, sometimes warily, as both men wine and dine a young deaf woman (played by Stacy Edwards). We squirm as the relationship unfolds. But we never yawn. This is a clever, fast-paced, nearly flawlessly constructed movie that's as riveting as it is cynical. We may not sympathize with the leading characters, but we are transfixed. Unabashed evil is, frankly, fascinating. And there are plenty of little plot twists to keep us on the edges of our seats. Writer/director Neil LaBute's dialog is witty, edgy, sharp. In key scenes, he fixes one camera on a single character for what seems like an excruciatingly long take -- a very effective technique that keeps the tension and adrenaline running high, and provides a documentary-like, almost voyeuristic feel. Eckhart is deliciously evil as the smooth-talking Chad; Malloy's character is equally complex. And Edwards plays the object of their attention with delicate, heart-wrenching sweetness.

Still, it's hard to truly enjoy this kind of movie, mainly because it's done so well. Not since Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) have I disliked a character so strongly. This is not a pleasant feeling, and so I hesitate to recommend it, without reservation, to friends.

But all humanitarian instincts aside, I have to admit that this is a superbly crafted, thought-provoking, lightning-quick film that inspired much spirited conversation between the sexes when the house lights came up. And that's worth a thumbs-up in my book.

[ by MaryAlice Bitts ]

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