META -- One Word of Truth -- Film Review: 'The Company of Men"

Tony Hollick (
Sun, 24 Aug 97 20:35 BST-1

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The Seattle Times, Today's Top Stories:

Director's vicious story gets him in hot water

Entertainment News

Copyright 1997 The Seattle Times Company

Friday, Aug. 22, 1997

by John Hartl

Seattle Times movie reviewer

Chad, the evil white-collar executive Aaron Eckhart plays in Neil
LaBute's "In the Company of Men," is so willfully destructive he hopes
his latest victim will reach for sleeping pills once he's through with

In the opening scenes, Chad and his pushover pal Howard (Matt Malloy)
set out to seduce Christine (Stacy Edwards), a deaf office worker. Their
goal: to simultaneously dump her and avenge themselves on women in

When LaBute and Eckhart attended the premiere of the movie at the
Sundance Film Festival last January, they weren't prepared for the
on-the-street reaction afterwards. Although it received a Sundance
filmmaker's trophy in the drama category, some accused the film itself
of being misogynistic and cruel.

"Women would come up to Aaron and say, `I hate you,' " said LaBute when
he brought the movie to the Seattle International Film Festival in May
(it opens for a regular run here today). "Of course he'd remind them
that `Yyou don't hate me, you hate the character.' "

LaBute thinks one reason Chad is so despised is that the story line
doesn't provide an obvious punishment for him or tie everything up

"That's when you've signed your death warrant," said LaBute, who
welcomes controversy. "Polarizing opinion is no worry to me. There's no
right or wrong answer to a film. My most feared responses are `That was
interesting' or `That was different.' "

LaBute set out to create a yin-yang relationship between the handsome,
aggressive Chad and the unassertive Howard, who goes along with the plan
but eventually wants out. As the story gradually shifts to Christine's
point of view, their scheming looks increasingly obsessive and pathetic.

"For drama's sake you create types of a sort," said LaBute. "Chad is the
poster boy for the one side you're trying to distill. People are a
little taken aback by him; they're hoping he's actually fallen for her.
They don't know what a viper he is; they don't understand his need for

"The way they begin it, it's almost a lark. You want him to be a better
guy than he is. And Chad has an advantage: The beautiful people get a
little more rope in life."

Eckhart is an old college friend who has appeared in several of LaBute's
plays as well as the upcoming Kevin Kline movie, "In and Out." LaBute
cast him because he could make the character ambiguous sexually and
otherwise, suggesting "15 reasons for what he's done."

He thinks Chad is "not unlike a serial killer. He has to take things
closer and closer to the edge, asking `How's that feel?' He has to know
how the pain feels, and he's going to take this too far at some point.
There's a synapse there that isn't firing emotionally."

At the same time, he feels a kinship with the character.

"Chad is in me, he's in everybody, I think. I've met people as bad as
Chad, though they had none of the charm."

LaBute believes that reluctant identification with the charismatic Chad
could be a reason for the angry response, although initially he doubted
that the script would have that kind of appeal. He shot it in less than
two weeks on a tiny budget.

"I didn't know there'd be an audience for it," said Labute, though he
did guess it when Sundance called to talk about showing it. "Then you
know you have a topic for discussion."

He sees the script as an outgrowth of his stage work: "Betrayal is a
subject I keep returning to in my plays, which tend to be a little
darker in spirit than most."

LaBute, a 34-year-old Mormon who met Eckhart at Brigham Young
University, spent his formative years in the Northwest.

Born in Detroit, he was a child when his parents moved to Spokane, where
he spent the next 15 years. He once worked at the city's best-known art
house, the Magic Lantern theater, visiting Seattle to see foreign films
that never crossed the mountains. He was a movie buff even as a child.

"I have to credit my mother for that," said LaBute. "She's always been a
voracious reader and film watcher. The first thing I can remember is
waking up in the middle of `Gone With the Wind' at the Dishman theater
in Spokane. The red was so overwhelming."

After high school, LaBute attended three universities, enrolled in the
graduate dramatic writing program at New York University, wrote several
plays ("Lepers," "A Gaggle of Saints") and moved to Fort Wayne, Ind.,
where he lives with his wife and two children.

"I always created quickly," he said. "Money (for film production) was
what I didn't have. With theater you could work much more rapidly."

Eventually he was able to raise enough to shoot "In the Company of Men,"
which is essentially a three-character story designed around a
minimalist budget.

"Casting was done with literally just three phone calls," he said.
"Aaron always wanted to do something with me, Stacy had done a play of
mine, and Matt I knew. I knew they had theater training, and I knew we
had only 11 days."

Abandoning the vogue for MTV-style cutting, LaBute's movie consists
mostly of long takes that allow the actors to develop more sustained

"They knew there was no way to cheat," said LaBute. "I'm a big hater of
establishing shots and inserts. Editing is a lie anyway. And I'm a big
fan of actors and what they can do. I can sit and watch two people talk
forever as long as the talk is good."

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