Who Fucks Who in The Company of Men?

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Who Fucks Whom In The Company of Men by Blanche McCrary Boyd

As I walked out of In the Company of Men, a woman stopped me outside and asked, “What was all
this supposed to mean?”

I don’t usually
answer questions about meaning without foreplay, but she was clutching my arm, so I said, “It’s
about who fucks whom.”

“But at the end, when he’s
yelling, ‘Listen, listen!’ at that deaf woman, what is that about?” She was a middle-aged woman with
a desperate, intelligent face.

“I don’t know,” I said,

In the Company of Men — a film about two
men who set out to intentionally break a deaf woman’s heart — posits that viewers understand irony,
a dangerous though delightful

Neil LaBute, a newcomer as writer and
director, clearly risks that some will interpret his film as sexist itself. His leading character,
Chad, is a misogynistic, cruel man who nevertheless entertains with fratboyish bluster; the
audience, shifting and wincing like embarrassed party guests, snickers at his most offensive jokes.
Consider this possible equivalent: a white director who creates winning, clever racists. It’s hard
to gauge whether LaBute is too young to be afraid, too inexperienced, or just too wily.

Chad and his project boss, Howard, are on a six-week work
assignment in an unnamed, boring city. (“Did you check out our nightlife?” “Yeah, we went to
Arby’s.”) When Howard complains bitterly about how he’s been gored by women — his fiancée
has recently broken their engagement — Chad confesses that he too was suddenly abandoned by his
wife of four years. Then Chad draws the reluctant Howard into a plan of revenge. He convinces Howard
that they should find a woman, date her, fulfill her deepest fantasies, and both dump her. “It’ll be
therapeutic,” Chad says. “Let’s do it. Let’s hurt somebody.”

Con artists and grifters (the latest term is sociopaths) get
their kicks and often their livelihoods from exploiting the vulnerabilities of others. Kirksey Nix,
Jr., an infamous con artist now in prison
in Angola, Louisiana, said in an interview, “It’s great to diddle somebody while they think they’re

diddling you.” Because seduction, the process of winning the victim’s complicity, is essential to
the con, it’s not a tidy crime, like mugging or burglary. It’s more like date rape, and it often
triggers guilt and
shame in the victim. Were you drunk? Just stupid? Did you ask for it?

Complicity is one of LaBute’s most persistent themes.
Christine is made complicit in her own victimization by her failure to tell Howard that she is
simultaneously dating Chad and has fallen in love with him; Howard is made complicit first by
consenting to take part in Chad’s plan, then by lying about why he needs to send Chad away on a
business trip. But LaBute’s major coup is the audience’s complicity, which he earns through our
amusement at Chad’s parody of Christine’s voice, and at a scene in which Chad insists that a young
African-American subordinate drop his pants to prove the size of his balls.

This humiliation of the young black employee is, in many ways,
the most disturbing scene in a movie full of provocations, and my first reaction was to find it
gratuitous. Later I recognized it as the biggest bang in LaBute’s political minefield.

In the 1970s, when I, like a lot of other women, first discovered the extent to which sexism had

affected my life, I was reluctant to connect the victimization of women to that of minorities. To
the jargon of that time, as a woman I saw myself oppressed; as a white person, I didn’t like
into the category of oppressor. Then I might have had to see white men in the same flawed and
morally-complicated light in which I so generously viewed myself. This paradoxical instinct was
pervasive, which is why a lot of women ended up in

furious conflict about whether the “primary contradiction” of American society was racism, sexism or
classism. In retrospect this polemic seems as futile as medieval debates about the size of angels,
and how many might fit onto the head of a pin.

By providing a white woman, a black man and a white man as Chad’s victims, LaBute makes an
unmistakable point that is still — as the woman who grabbed my arm demonstrated — difficult to
hear: it’s not always so easy to figure out who is fucking whom. When Howard is shouting, “Listen,
listen!” to Christine, he is trying to communicate that his life was also derailed by Chad. Her
deafness is both literal and symbolic. A few seconds later the film goes silent, and the audience,
too, falls deaf to Howard’s frantic pantomime.

For its success, In the Company of
relies heavily on the acting ability of Aaron Eckhardt as Chad. When Eckhardt says, to the
man who drops his pants, that success is about “who is sporting the nastiest sac of venom and who is
willing to use it,” he manages that both ludicrous and lethal tone of smug college athletes. And his
tenderness with Christine is convincing enough to make the audience, along with Howard, wonder if

Chad’s abandoned his plan and developed half a heart. Ultimately we learn with Howard that the
destruction of Christine’s heart has been a pleasant diversion on Chad’s journey, no more
consequential that the thud of roadkill.

Matt Malloy plays the dupe with surprising nuance. It’s hard
to like a man as weak as Howard, who lets Chad dominate him in work meetings with subordinates, who
lies poorly, and who cooperates with cruelty. Yet Malloy manages to tug at our sympathies. “I’m the
good guy!” he shouts at Christine, but
of course, he tells her the truth to try to win her for himself. As Christine, Stacy Edwards plays a
character distinguished by little more than her deafness; she draws us in with her voice alone.
Christine occupies what little moral high ground there is in this film, and Edwards manages to lend
her dignity.

If LaBute pulls all of this together with
surprising adroitness, he does so at the expense of his characterization of Chad, who is finally a
foil. As a fiction writer, I envy the ease with which filmmakers create “the willing suspension of
disbelief.” A novelist has twenty-six letters to convince readers of the characters’ reality;

directors have moving pictures of breathing people, and seeing, as they say, is believing. Final
assessments are a different matter. Though I found Chad all too believable while watching the film,
afterwards he seemed an apparition. Ekhart’s efforts notwithstanding, the script finally
rendered him a one-dimensional asshole, lacking the seams of flesh and blood creeps. When Howard
finally confronts Chad in the penultimate scene and demands an explanation, all we get is “because
I could.”

Monstrousness couched in the ordinary is more awful than
monstrousness straight up. That Eichmann was a good family man, that Goebbels loved canaries, that
Kirksey Nix, Jr., has taken up oil painting, is more frightening than the chainsawing binges of
horror protagonists. I’m sure we’ll see more of Neil LaBute after this ballsy debut; maybe next time
his monster will be as complicated as he is cunning.

Blanche McCrary Boyd and Nerve