Comfortable and Furious

Starring debuts #16: Aaron Eckhart in In the Company of Men (1997)

Perhaps the key scene in Neil LaBute’s caustic debut is the one in which business exec Chad (Eckhart) gets a junior colleague to expose himself.

It’s during this brief humiliation that we grasp Company’s true interest: the increasingly unpleasant methods Chad will use to clamber over other men in the workplace.

A fair chunk of viewers, however, struggle to get past the movie’s nasty premise (the deliberate emotional and psychological destruction of a vulnerable young woman) and therefore mark it down as a misogynist’s twisted dream.

Company’s far too smart to fall into such a trap. Chad simply uses misogyny as a tool to climb the corporate ladder and get what he wants: power and control over his defeated brethren. However, even before he hatches his memorably evil plan, it’s clear he’s obsessed with work’s competitive nature. Listen to him talk about the younger guys: “Bunch of vultures waiting for me to tire out. I get low numbers two months in a row, they’re gonna feed on my insides.” He hates his male colleagues. They’re all threats, obstacles and ‘a special strain of fucker.’ No wonder we get periodic bursts of tribal music. Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got fun and games

And then there’s his alma mater buddy Howard (Malloy), who’s just forged ahead in the pecking order. They’ve been sent out on a temporary job to a chaotic branch office with Howard hesitantly in charge. Although Chad expresses no resentment, it appears odd. After all, Chad’s the confident, handsome, smooth-talking extrovert whereas Howard has got the glasses, slightly nerdy haircut, and dull personality. How come he gets to give the orders, especially when he has difficulty standing up to his own mum? Perhaps Chad senses a glitch in the matrix…

Whatever the case, they do share one thing in common: a growing intolerance of the way women have treated them. Chad’s misogyny is evident straightaway. He tells hateful jokes and imagines Howard’s rebellious fiancee ending up on a pyre in the village square if they lived in India. Worse is to come. Chad wants to find a ‘wallflower type’ during their six-week assignment, ‘some corn-fed bitch who’d practically mess her pants if you so much as sharpened a pencil for her’ that they can both woo before simultaneously dumping.

“We will laugh about this,” he tells Howard, “till we are very old men.”

It’s queasy stuff, all right, and can be difficult to watch, especially as Chad chooses Christine (Edwards), a self-conscious deaf typist who’s got a voice like ‘Flipper the dolphin’.

From this point on, the male chauvinism flies thick and fast. “Women,” Chad says. “Inside, they’re all the same. Just meat and gristle and hatred.”

But everything comes down to this arch-manipulator’s overall game plan, best illustrated when he shuts his office blinds and asks an intern to drop his pants, a compliance that might persuade him to recommend the guy for a management trainee program.

“I just wanna make sure you’ve got what it takes,” Chad says in a reasonable tone of voice. “Show. Me. Your. Balls.” Still the stammering intern hesitates before Chad reveals business is all about who’s ‘sporting the nastiest sac of venom.’ Once the intern submits, Chad knows he’s got the better of him and visibly relaxes. “Get me a cup of coffee,” he adds, just to underline his dominance.

It’s not hard to see Chad’s a human rattlesnake. It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine him working for Aktion T4, the Nazis’ program of forced euthanasia that happily said bye-bye to the less Chad-like members of society. And you could be sure he’d look damned good strolling around the office adorned with a pair of lightning bolts. As it is, he works in marketing which, as we all know, is even fucking worse.

Eckhart gives a memorable portrait of a chain-smoking corporate sociopath, boyish and charming one moment, bone-chillingly cruel the next. Sure, this baby Gekko is not helped by LaBute’s static direction, the relentlessly mundane locations and the failure to disguise the movie’s stage origins, but he still revels in the role. Few flicks deliver such piercing dialogue or so resolutely refuse to sell out its despicable main character. Or as Chad tells his decade-long, increasingly bewildered mate: “Never lose control. That’s the key, Howard. That is the total key to the universe.”



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