Spend any time in the online gutters of wounded masculinity – pickup artist forums, men’s rights subreddits, anything posted by sentient potato Matt Forney – and a narrative of uniqueness becomes pretty familiar. This is unprecedented, we’re told: decades of overreach by the feminist movement have produced an equal and opposite reaction, an overdue assertion of manly righteousness the likes of which have never been seen before. One needs only a basic knowledge of the cultural forces in question to recognize this as specious at best. Organized feminism all the way back to its 19th century infancy has always been attended not just by pushback, but pushback termed as aggrievement: the belief that women have always already enjoyed a disproportionate sway over American political life, often explicitly backed by the logic that they can get men to do anything they like simply by withholding sex.

A surge of such sentiment is captured vividly in Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men. The opening moments find two businessmen, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), idling in an airport terminal, Howard is smarting from a failed pickup attempt just moments before. Howard confesses he got slapped. Chad is incredulous and waxes apocalyptic: “We’re doomed then. Seriously. As a race. Men like us, guys who care about the workplace, their women…We’re doomed if this is how they treat us.”

As they talk, Chad adopts the tone of an agitator, a second-waver in reverse, encouraging Howard to find the political in the personal. “Seems like everything, you know, work, these women…feel like they’re going out of balance, don’t they?” Howard asks at one point. “Yeah, they really do,” Chad concurs. “We ought to do something about it.”

Chad already has something in mind. He proposes that he and Howard, headed to a flyover country branch office on a six-week assignment, pull a long con on a local naïf. They’d approach her separately, competitively court her, and then drop her unceremoniously at the end of their stay. The more devastating, the better: they would aim not just to seduce her but to make her fall in love with them. Thus would they extract their pound of flesh from women writ large for the indignities suffered regularly by nice guys like them.

Needless to say for any film hoping to sustain an audience’s attention on even this lurid premise, it doesn’t proceed without some complications. The first, perhaps most significant, is Chad’s choice of target. Expecting to scoop up a plain Jane local hayseed, he finds instead a beautiful typist at the branch office who happens also to be deaf. Christine (Stacy Edwards) projects enough savvy to suggest an ability to fend for herself, yet Chad and Howard seize on her disability as a spiritual pressure point and presume her defenseless against their advances. When she proves cautiously receptive to both of them, Christine proves them partially right. But then Howard brings about the second, climactic complication by developing real feelings for her. When Christine rebuffs him, his loyalty to Chad crumbles and he exposes the con.

Looking back on In the Company of Men two decades hence, it’s easy to read his screen debut as a blueprint for the harshly schematic moral confrontations for which LaBute would soon come to be known. Adapted from his stage drama of the same name, the film has the tightly wound blunt force of a one-act play, treating its principals as the lab rats of an experiment in simulated cruelty.

LaBute’s subsequent dramas, from original screenplays like Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) and even remakes of remakes of Wicker Man (2006) and Death at a Funeral (2010), – have followed a similar format. Like Todd Solondz, LaBute invites dismissal as an indie darling shock jock whose misanthropy shtick went stale at least two movies ago. The complaint is both a telling defense mechanism of moralistic popular critics, and warranted: a whiff of calculation hovers over even the better of LaBute’s films.

Even taken as a high-gloss cage-rattler, though, In the Company of Men is effective. You might resent, for example, LaBute’s use of deafness to stoke righteous indignation. But consider how he sequences Christine’s first spoken lines only after we hear Chad describe her voice, in predictably sadistic terms. Until then we’re huddled tightly with him and Howard: they map out the world for us entirely on their own terms. When we first see Christine, we see her in blurry shallow focus, communicating entirely in gestures to Chad in the shot’s foreground. His unanswered questions and incredulous oaths take the form of snarky running commentary from an unreliable narrator.

The effect is furthered after their first date, which we don’t see but rather hear related to Howard with Chad’s signature snake oil loquacity. When we finally hear her voice on a dinner date with Howard, her ability to speak for herself has been already been compromised: her bashful, labored speech is haunted by the dramatic irony of Chad’s contempt, which Howard happily replicates.

In a revealing moment on the way to the film’s climax, Howard remarks to Chad that Christine is “kinda nice.” Chad concurs: “Yeah, it’s an odd twist, all considered.” What makes the exchange both funny and eerie is that recognizing this does nothing to deter them. On the contrary, her sense of empathy becomes more fodder for manipulation, especially once she realizes, with considerable guilt, that Chad and Howard are co-workers. It also shows us glimpses of an inner life that otherwise remains obscured.

There’s no doubt that by deliberately telling his story from the men’s point-of-view, LaBute writes Christine into a corner. Her purpose isn’t to represent her own experience, but rather to expose the callousness of others. Yet the scenes in which she begs forgiveness from Howard for leading him on are among the film’s most powerful, precisely because she’s the only one to show any sort of basic decency towards another human being. Her crimes are minor, of course, but to Howard it makes no difference: as soon as it’s clear he’s opened his heart and, yes, bought a ring, only to be passed over for his hunkier counterpart, Christine has fulfilled his worst fears about women.

Played by Matt Malloy as a pressure-cooker of nebbish ressentiment, Howard is, on one hand, in the mold of novelist Michel Houellebecq’s impotent anti-heroes, denied access to a sexual economy of scarcity seemingly simply via karmic bum luck. But on the other, as cryptic phone calls we eavesdrop on throughout the film suggest, he seems to have arrived at that point in response to perfectly pedestrian romantic disappointment. Chad then deputizes this sense of disappointment by recasting it as a unique form of shared grievance.

By consenting to Chad’s theater of cruelty, Howard relinquishes any right to sympathy, and yet we still get the sense he might grow out of it someday. Chad meanwhile is pure icy savagery, an asshole for life. LaBute has said in interviews that he doesn’t trust beautiful people, and in Eckhart, as in Rachel Weisz for The Shape of Things, he finds the embodiment of late-capitalist libertinism, a self-made ringmaster of moral chaos.

As in 1997, so again in 2017 that this revenge on a world “out of balance” bears a racial dimension. Perhaps the film’s most painful scene shows Chad casually subjecting a black subordinate to psychosexual torment. Ultimately, the scene is about Chad touching the abyss of homoerotic domination and white fantasies of black virility. Significantly, though, it begins with Chad flying into a rage over the intern’s use of African-American vernacular – “it’s pronounced ‘ask!’” he seethes into the young man’s terrified face – thus echoing his earlier policing of Christine’s speech.

But if Howard thinks his shared whiteness entitles him to Chad’s loyalty, he discovers all too late that he’s merely a stooge, much as one can’t help but suspect of the homely army of sycophants that congregate around genuinely handsome, equally monstrous “neo-masculinist” figureheads like Forney’s compatriot Roosh V. (Indeed, it isn’t difficult to imagine them in the beta/alpha Howard/Chad roles, respectively.) What first appears an ironclad solidarity of identity eventually shows itself to be entirely provisional.

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