In The Company of Men is about two men who deliberately decide to hurt someone. "Let's do it," says one of them. "Let's hurt someone", in a wonderful re-working of Tarantino "Let's go to work." For this is in many ways a film about work as much as it is about the relationships between men and women. The plot revolves around two men, white-collar office workers, Chad and Howard. Chad is good-looking, smooth-talking. Howard is something of a geek, insecure, less attractive but still Chad's best friend and boss.
We never really know exactly what these men do apart from waiting in queues for the fax machine, hanging out at lunch counters, talking tough, worrying about the business and arguing over who gets the corner office. They are white-collar workers who feel that things are going badly wrong. The balance has been shifted in favour of women, things have gone too far. Interestingly we never actually see any women doing anything except being typists, but Chad particularly feels that women are to blame. "I don't trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn't die" is one of his already notorious lines.
The solution to their insecurities, he decides, is to find someone more vulnerable than themselves - a woman - and have both him and Howard date her and then simultaneously dump her. He finds the perfect victim in Christine, a beautiful but deaf secretary, and Howard goes uncomfortably along with this. It gets even more uncomfortable when he falls for Christine and Christine falls for Chad.
This is a brutal but intriguing film and, as American critics have warned us, hardly a feel-good or suitable first date movie. Indeed Seinfeld snogging his girlfriend during Schindler's List looks positively PC by comparison. Yet the nastiness of In The Company of Men - which as Neil LaBute, the writer and director, has said, women take as documentary and men as fantasy - has its basis in some sort of emotional truth: that men often bond with each other through their relationships with women. Christine really is a pawn in a power play between Chad and Howard. Chad is not simply a misogynist, he practices equal opportunity hatred; he hates everyone.
If is difficult to know what to make of the fact that LaBute is a Mormon. My knowledge of the influence of the Mormon faith on popular culture begins and ends with The Osmonds, yet there is something very Old Testament about the notion of sin and the refusal to offer any hope of redemption to any of its characters. There are echoes of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross here, not only in the pared-down style of the film but in its portrayal of the selling of souls to the great anonymous corporate god.
That, rather than misogyny, lies at the heart of the film. Misogyny, I'm afraid, is a word that gets tossed around all the time without much understanding of what it means. Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, called Clinton a misogynist; and yet no one has complained about Dick Morris, one of Clinton's former advisers, going around saying things like "Men are from Mars. Women are from Yellow Pages". We live in a culture in which all kinds of misogyny are acceptable as long as they are funny or ironic or just plain stupid. What is so disturbing about In The Company of Men is that the hatred of women is never ironised. It is visceral. When Chad rages on about a new breed of women taking over ("Inside they're all the same - meat and gristle and hatred") we are reminded that the sheer fear and hatred of women's bodies, of literally their insides, is still present, is still powerful.
The only other film-maker who conjures up such disgust is David Cronenberg. In Dead Ringers he has his psychotic gynaecologist designing sadistic medical instruments for what he describes as "mutant women". They look normal on the outside, but inside who knows what is going on? (This of course is the opposite message from that of the infamous bra ads which suggested that whatever women looked like on the outside, underneath they were as soft and gentle and feminine as ever.)
Isn't that just the worry these days? The new breed of women is revealed in In The Company of Men as a paranoid fantasy. There are no female executives, Demi Moore type bosses sexually harassing their employees; it's just that these men feel this to be the case. This is why the film strikes such a nerve. For the fact is that this new breed of women is us, our sisters, our daughters. You cannot tell just by looking at us that we are taking over the world, but every single day of the week we read yet another statistic about education or work that must make men feel insecure.
We can if we choose also read another set of statistics which shows that women are still not being promoted, still not earning as much as men, and remain subject to all sorts of sexual abuse at home, on the streets, and at work. Those arguing that the balance has been tipped too far in favour of women choose consistently to ignore such statistics. Chad and Howard in their own extreme and deluded way are only acting on the information that is continually and selectively given to men.
This film strips their world bare. In a sterile world of jostling for power over who gets what software these men become buddies. Howard lies and cheats to be like Chad. Chad lies and cheats to get one over on Howard. What happens to Christine is irrelevant until Howard becomes so confused by his own emotions he can only yell at her that she is a retard.
I am not suggesting that the world is as it is shown here, but I am saying that the patterns of behaviour within the film, abhorrent as they might be, will be recognisable to any woman. A few men may whoop and cheer, as they have done in America at some scenes. They should be ashamed of themselves. Most men, I imagine, will be made uncomfortable by this film. Dismissing this as a misogynistic movie is a far easier option than to understand it as a feminist one. And that is true whether you are a male or female, one of the old breed or one of the new.