It was rated R for ‘language and emotional abuse’
when it opened in America late last year, and at the first
Australian media preview, one seasoned critic felt so
‘abused’ he walked out half way through. In the Company
of Men is an American film but it defies America’s national
sense of optimism and the belief that good triumphs over bad.
First time filmmaker Neil LaBute set out to consciously defy such
"If I’d written something that satisfied those
expectations and the characters got what they deserved, that
would have let the audience off the hook, they would have walked
out and soon forgotten about it."
"The plots are based
on the deception of the witless by the witty."
The triggering mantra for the film was ‘let’s hurt
somebody’ LaBute says pointedley. The setting is a corporate
environment, where two men spend six weeks away from home base on
a project. One of them, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) complains to his
colleague Howard (Matt Molloy) about the treatment women dish out
to men, and suggests a plan of revenge in which they identify a
suitably vulnerable woman and both romance her unmercifully until
she falls for them both – and then they can both
unceremoniously dump her.
Where LaBute’s deadly pen strikes hardest is in the
selection of the target, a pretty temp, Christine (Stacy Edwards)
working at the company, who types up notes – but is totally
deaf. A woman with a disability that probably makes her
vulnerable. And unattached. Perfect.
"Chad is closest
perhaps to the Moor in Titus Andronicus - 'if ever I’ve
done anything good, I regret it’."
It is risky filmmaking because it risks alienating its
audience. Told in five acts, LaBute’s steady framing is
driven along at each new act by damning drums alongside
discordant orchestral music, restating the mood. For those who
take their tea strong, their vodka straight and their emotions on
the chin, In the Company of Men is a jolting, sometimes jocular
exposition of the human condition – seen through dark
"It’s really a typical love triangle," says
LaBute, "but with a twist. And more than anything, it’s
based on Restoration comedy" where the plots are based on
the deception of the witless by the witty. But there is also a
nod to Shakespeare in the deception that Chad engineers.
"Chad is closest perhaps to the Moor in Titus Andronicus, a
deceptive, awful character who, even when he was buried up to his
neck at the end said something like, ‘if ever I’ve done
anything good, I regret it’."
proud that I’ve made a film, but they refuse to screen
This was a conscious reference and not surprising for a
lecturer in English and theatre. A graduate of Kansas, New York
and Brigham Young Universities, LaBute, a Mormon, is bemused by
the reaction to his film at the latter, a Mormon institution:
"They’re very proud that I’ve made a film, but
they refuse to screen it." He admits there is a split with
his church over the film. "The church doesn’t believe
that good can come from bad. But I do; I believe a great deal of
good can come from showing what is bad."
Married with two children, LaBute lives in Fort Wayne,
Indiana, two hours north of Indianapolis and over three hours
south of Chicago: the center of middle America, "or as some
say, the center of nowhere. We shot the film here in Fort Wayne
because it’s a good place at providing the nondescript
environment we wanted."
The curly haired La Bute describes himself as a
"docile" person, but he also admits to a
"chronically arched eyebrow about the world, including
myself." Above all, he says he is a writer "with a need
to find something new to say."
"It cost somewhat less
than The Castle, and the money came from the insurance payout
from two friends"
LaBute has never made a film before, but he has already made
his mark with this one, winning an armful of awards last year,
including the Filmmakers’ Trophy at Sundance Film Festival,
Best First Film from the New York Film Critics, the Youth and the
Silver prizes at the Deauville festival, a Special Mention for
Excellence in Filmmaking from the National Board of Review, and
is included in the Best Films of 1997 lists of both Time magazine
and Rolling Stone.
Not bad, huh? It cost somewhat less than The Castle, and the
money came from the insurance payout from two friends who had
been in a car accident. One of the three lead actors, Matt
Molloy, came up with another $5,000. The film grossed around US$3
million in the US, making it instantly profitable.
"It has a caustic view
of the world."
LaBute is in the middle of editing Friends and Neighbours, his
second film, which has been financed by Propaganda Films (part of
PolyGram) and has a bigger budget "but it is still
contained: there are no exterior shots and only six characters.
Aaron Eckhart, whose performance in In the Company of Men won him
Outstanding New Talent Award in the 1997 Golden Satellites
Awards, joins Jason Patrick, Ben Stiller and Nastassja Kinsky in
what LaBute calls "a film between drama and comedy, about
fluctuating relationships – there’s a lot of fur
flying, and it has a caustic view of the world."
And a chronically arched eyebrow, perhaps.
This is an edited version of Andrew
L. Urban’s article in The Bulletin, March 25, 1998.