[Deep Focus]

It's opening weekend as I write this, and writer/director Neil LaBute seems to have already had more ink spilled over his first feature than many filmmakers will get over their entire careers. He's crafted an ingenious concept on which to hang a $25,000 film -- two specimens of white-shirted corporate flunky find themselves stuck working on a project in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Both men have just come off a bad relationship, and neither is happy about it. Both of them also seem to be projecting their frustrations over their high-tension rat race of a career onto the women in their lives. Since their social life looks to be a black hole for the next six weeks, one of them comes up with the clever idea of having a bit of sport with one of the locals. As a payback for all the crap he's taken from women, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) convinces Howard (Matt Malloy) that he should join him in taking a little vengeance on the opposite gender.

Specifically, he suggests that he and Howard should target some needy woman, preferably one who's disabled in some way, and woo her separately. Once she's grown accustomed to adulation and attention -- and, preferably, has fallen in love with one or both of the men -- they both return to the home office never to be seen again, dumping the poor girl, hard, as they go. "She'll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week, and we'll be laughing about this 'til we're very old men," Chad assures Howard.

Yeah, I know. Funny guy.

When he's not spewing venom, Chad has that handsome sincerity regarded so highly by middle America. He seems gentle and trustworthy, and we're clearly -- a little too clearly, maybe -- meant to be appalled by how quickly he can become very vile indeed. The scenario here actually reminds me mostly of the much-reviled Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho, but with less outrageousness. Chad is nowhere near as far gone as Ellis's character, but the misogyny likely springs from similar roots. And while American Psycho was conceived as an instrument to shock and offend, In the Company of Men bends over backwards to make us understand its thesis.

Specifically, it's very observant where corporate culture is involved, and it suggests that a man's psyche is shaped by the workaday rigors of office life. You don't have to work in an office very long to recognize the vicious, testosterone-fueled sniping that is carried to Mamet-like proportions by In the Company of Men. And it's the Sisyphean struggle to outperform all of the other rats in the maze, the terrible paranoia that your second-in-command is ready to stab you in the back, and the overwhelming pressure to always be one up on your fellow man that Chad is so good at co-opting and turning to his advantage.

Women happen to be convenient scapegoats for male insecurity, but it's pretty clear by the end of the movie that Chad has come to terms with his feelings in that department. Howard, on the other hand, is a more pathetic creation. He's Chad's nominal boss, but he lacks Chad's confidence and charisma. Worse, he somehow allows himself to be sucked up into Howard's cruel prank, and ends up falling for the girl instead of screwing her over.

It's not hard to understand why. As Christine, Stacy Edwards is so attractive and appealing that you hope she wouldn't be in a position to fall for these kinds of moves. But she's also deaf. Her speech, to use Chad's cruel metaphor, is reminiscent of a monologue by the elephant man. And so we must assume that she is exactly as vulnerable as Chad hopes she is. And besides, Chad is, as my girlfriend explained, "the kind of bastard who knows exactly what to say." Howard, on the other hand, never knows quite what to say or do. And as the deception arcs along on its six-week trajectory, Howard begins to look more and more like a chump.

I'm not sure how much control the cameraman has over the eventual look of a $25,000 film, but if this one's bleak, noirish stylistics weren't entirely deliberate, they sure were fortuitous. For me, this movie demonstrates that the essence of the so-called new noir is really the fear of being manipulated. While the old films noir of the 40s and 50s were permeated by expressionistic the-world-is-a-lonely-place angst and a sense of nearly supernatural, moralistic payback, the "neo-noir" cycle zeroes in on those sinking feelings of distrust and haplessness, beginning with William Hurt's schmuck fall guy in Body Heat. And while those films have tended to urge audience identification with the male victim -- Michael Douglas's can't-keep-it-in-his-pants white guy from Fatal Attraction, or the deer-in-the-headlights victim of Linda Fiorentino from The Last Seduction -- In The Company of Men forces identification with the male victimizer(s). In so doing, it turns the gender tables to reflect the widespread attitudes -- sure, you could call it "sexism" -- that still prevail in certain circles.

But to its credit, the film is more complicated than that. In particular, the final shot is an eloquent and hard-hitting depiction of pure impotent/pathetic rage. In the Company of Men is finally a little pat, a little predictable, and perhaps a little restrained by the limitations of its budget. But as I write, it seems to be still unspooling reel after reel in my head. It's not escapism, nor is it at all pleasant. But it's an impressive film, and all the more so for being a debut feature. If this LaBute guy can keep his edge on a bigger budget, he's one to watch.

Written and Directed by Neil LaBute
Cinematography by Tony Hettinger
Music by Karel Roessingh and Ken Williams
Edited by Joel Plotch
Starring Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy, and Stacy Edwards
Canada, 1997

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