In the Company of Men - * * * 1/2*

Pain. In the Company of Men is the exploration of the amount of pain and mental anguish one human can purposefully cause another. It may sound like a horrible thing to watch, and at times it is. But there is a creepy fascination that holds you throughout the film, and rivets your attention to the screen.

The film follows the exploits of two businessmen: Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Maloy). The pair has been sent to a remote office for a six-week project, but along the way, they conduct a project of their own. Each man has recently been dumped by their latest girlfriend, and are fed up with women in general. Chad proposes an evil plot: during the next six weeks, they will find the most pathetic and vulnerable woman they can. Each man will court and woo her, and after she’s starting to feel good about life and herself, both men will dump her hard. “She’ll be reaching for the sleeping pills within a week,” Chad laughs.

Howard reluctantly agrees, and the two men set out to find their victim. They don’t have to look far. Newly employed in their remote office is Christine (Stacy Edwards), a deaf employee who’s pretty, but painfuly shy. The two men descend upon her like vultures to a carcass.

Chad is the prime evildoer, manipulating everyone around him, because he can. His charm and wit quickly seduces the surprised Christine. His prodding and cajoleing keeps Howard in line and committed to their deal.

Howard, on the other hand, is not cut out for this. He’s a nebbishy worrier who somehow got put in charge of the business’ latest project. His pact with Chad only adds to the complication and frustration of his life. Yet, he proceeds. He awkwardly courts Christine, ashamed at himself, but never revealing the ruse.

In the Company of men is at times sexist, racist, mysogynistic, misanthropic, and unapoligetic. It is so brazenly anti-PC that it is a given that some camps will dismiss the film offhand. Those willing to stick it out, however, will not be disappointed. The film is painful to watch at times, but too compelling not to.

The central storyline of In the Company of Men is so arresting, that its other subplots, and even its ending, suffer by comparison. The conflicts between Chad and the interns being groomed for management seems particularly distracting. And the final twist of the film lacks the punch that it should, simply because you’re completely numb from the film’s proceeding shocks.

The film never explains why Chad and Howard do the things they do, never simplifying it down into an easy-to-digest reason. Could it be the loss of identity in the corporate culture? Undiagnosed sociopathic tendencies? Or, merely that they are men? The reason is never stated, and could be any, all, or none of these, and the film is stronger for not revealing it. As it stands, the film paints a chilling portrait of evil, and any attempt to diagnose it would simply limit its scope, and thus its effectiveness.

Director Neil LaBute has crafted an intense drama (with bleak black moments of humor). It is designed to evoke strong emotions, but, love it or hate it, the action on the screen in thoroughly entrancing, and never boring.

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