La Bute's Boys Will be Boys
by Andrea Meyer
"In the Company of Men" hits the screens today, and it's sure to cause a
stir. There will be supporters, fans, people in love with this film, and
there will be its detractors ranging from the merely critical to the
disgusted. It will be hard to find a neutral spectator.
This first feature by playwright and first-time filmmaker Neil LaBute
originated with the line of dialogue, "Let's hurt somebody," from which
sprang a story about two frustrated suits who date a deaf woman with the
intention of dumping her simultaneously, the idea being they will have an
emotional triumph to savor in future times of despair.
Disturbing from start to finish, this perverse version of the love
triangle tale refuses to let up or cave in. It's relentless and
unforgiving, unlike the movies audiences are most accustomed to. It's
also slow-moving, a departure from the typical rules of dramatic
structure, and it bombards us with words, hostile, biting words, for all
of its 93 minutes. It's amazing that almost 30 minutes of dialogue were
At a recent roundtable in New York, attended by LaBute and his two lead
actors, Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy, the filmmaker expressed some anxiety
about opening in August, the prime season for debuts both large and
small. People noticed the film at Cannes, New Directors/New Films, and
Sundance (it won the Filmmakers' Award for Best Dramatic Feature), but
despite the award and a healthy buzz, Sundance came and went without a
distribution deal, leaving LaBute and crew feeling pretty discouraged.
Aaron Eckhart, one of the film's stars, recalled meeting Harvey
Weinstein at Cannes, Weinstein did his "loved your fucking film" spiel
and reiterated the impossibility of picking it up. Eckhart said that
after Miramax passed, when "even Harvey" found the film "too
hot to handle," they thought it was all over. Prior to New Directors, Sony
Pictures Classics came in to play white knight.
The selling point seems to be the film's controversial nature, yet it's not
clear how you're meant to read the film. One of my friends left a
screening saying, "I can't believe the filmmaker's a family man from
Indiana. It seems like it was made by some radical feminist
ballbreaker." And another: "That was the most misogynistic film I've
LaBute accepts both responses as valid. The theater-trained director
explains that, on stage, he favors a type of performance which places
the audience in an active, interpretive role. He elaborates, "The
beautiful thing about the theater is that connection with an audience. A
performance really relies on who's watching it. And in a way, leaving
expectations unfulfilled and open to discussion is a place where an
audience can then be interactive."
LaBute carries this theory over to his film, where he casts a
dispassionate eye on his characters, almost as if they were under a
microscope; the audience observes and comes to its own conclusions. He
concludes that "'Feminist' is as good a reading as any as far as I'm
concerned." For those who label it "mysogynistic," he says "God bless
'em," he insists that he had a larger picture in mind and hopes
that nasty word won't "be the thing that will fit most easily into the
one-line description in the newspaper."
Audiences who have been conditioned by Hollywood's belief that bad guys
should be judged, punished, and repentant, might be scared off by
LaBute's refusal to judge or punish his characters. His cast, however,
supports a vision they see as insightful and necessary.
For example, one distributor called LaBute cruel and voyeuristic for
leaving the camera running for such a long time in a scene where the
victimized girl, Christine (Stacy Edwards) cries. LaBute felt is was
important to really feel her pain, to emphasize "that there had been a
cost, or there wouldn't be much of an emotional payoff." Indeed, Eckhart
admits to getting "weepy" every time he sees the scene. And he loves the
violent screech of music that follows: "Then Neil just says, "fuck you,"
and he puts this music on, it's just devastating. This is Neil's vision.
And he's not apologizing for it."
The filmmaking process was a story of dedication to a project that cast
and crew viewed as something special. The seed money came in the form of
a settlement when two of LaBute's friends, Toby Gaff and Mark Hart, were
injured in a car accident. When additional funds were needed, actor Matt
Malloy borrowed money from his brother, earning himself an Executive
Producer title. The minuscule budget was so tight that the cast lived on
bologna sandwiches prepared by a producer's mother and shooting was
scheduled around the vacation plans of LaBute's neighbors, whose house
lodged all three stars.
Eckhart laughed about the continuity crew's allotment of two Polaroids
per day. They had to write down shot descriptions. At this point Eckhart
and Malloy themselves went out and bought bags of Polaroid film and told
them to go crazy with it. The shooting ratio was about four to one, but
in a film full of long takes, Malloy estimates that for about a quarter
of the film's scenes, they only got one complete take. They shot for
eleven days and never for more than twelve hours, and with determination
got all the necessary footage.
Both Eckhart and Malloy were excited by the piece from the first time
they read the script. They felt a real challenge in playing
representatives of corporate America in such a vicious depiction.
Eckhart says he admires LaBute for showing men "in a way that I believe
they actually behave in a lot of instances where power and control and
money are involved, and competition. I love Neil's unrepentant view of
Malloy had a hard time acting so cruel. He tried to understand how a guy
like Howard might fall for Chad's depraved scheme: "If you're going to war,
you don't talk about 'oh, there'll be women and children bloody on the side
of the road.' You say 'We will establish ourselves as a fucking force!' and everyone says, 'YEAH!' And three years later you look at the pictures and say, 'Jesus,
what did we do?' I think what Chad was offering Howard was to be in this
club that Howard had never been a part of. I guess in preparing for it,
I thought about times in my life, when there had been these magnetic
guys, in college or in show business, and what you'll do to be along
with them... You're kind of scared along the way, but you've gotten into
this thing, and there's an envy that goes with it, that's like 'do I
have the stuff?'"
Neil LaBute shows us one of the ruthless games that boys will play and
he never apologizes for it. His vision is cruel and never offers us
relief or assurance that everything will be alright. In this world,
things are not alright. Audiences will have to digest this and see how
[Andrea Meyer is a New York freelancer who contributes to The
Independent Film Monitor and iW.]