The Generalist

Filmintegration: In the Company of Men

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

In the Company of Men
Sony Pictures
Neil LaBute writer/director

LaBute (writer and director) aptly sets his movie in the ubiquitous American scenes of dating and business — work and women. His scenes are all too familiar to the average American — and this is exactly as LaBute intends. Evil does not necessarily wear the guise of an SS uniform. Evil begins long before the death camps of Auschwitz or the Killing Fields of Cambodia can emerge. LaBute’s message: Evil can exist anywhere, on any scale, and men must always remain vigilant or suffer the consequences. LaBute’s story revolves around the interplay of three characters. During a business trip, two old frat buddies, Chad and Howard attempt to mutually seduce a pretty deaf girl at the office. Of course things are not as they appear. Chad and Howard are really potential rivals vying to move up the corporate ladder. The seduction of the girl is Chad’s attempt to unravel Howard and divert him from his role as the overall supervisor — a job Chad wants.

Of the trio, Chad is certainly the most tragic figure. He is the one most capable rational action and using means to achieve ends. He lectures a college intern, “I want you to know a thing because it’s true not because some man says that its right”. After the lecture, Chad finds that he can easily make the intern undress himself simply because he is told to do so. He reveals his philosophy on corporate work, “That’s what business is all about — who is sporting the nastiest sack of venom and who is willing to use it.” Despite his tragic flaws, he is the only character with any sense of integrity. The American culture of the 90’s, and the people who dwell within it, have left Chad a bitter and oppressed man. He despises whiners and affected compassion — thus he hates almost everyone.

Christine is the deaf office girl who is being seduced by both Howard and Chad. Outwardly she appears the victim, but she is playing her own game, a game that must inevitably hurt one of two men. After sleeping with Chad, she continues to date Howard out of compassion. But is that really compassionate? Although her own ends are not so well defined as Chad, they are certainly more defined than Howard’s. Howard is the most despicable character, he acts without knowing why, he does what he is told and never questions it. Seduce a lonely young girl — for the sole purpose of wreaking emotional havoc — sure why not. At least Chad had a personal motive in the seduction. Without thought and deliberation, men are incapable of purposeful action and they become automatons. Howard is the kind of man capable of anything, the kind that makes evil on a vast scale possible.

Early on Chad tells him: “Never lose control — that’s the key, Howard — that is the real key to universe — trust me.” Unfortunately, for Howard control is impossible — as it is for any man incapable of reflection. As the last scene of the movie suggests, Howard is a man totally out of control. In the end, the film delivers justice. Chad after admitting the entire plan of seduction and the real victim, contemptuously asks, “How does it feel to really hurt someone, Howard?”

What did you expect?


  1. Lisa

    15 Jan 2007 - 12:19 pm

    I think Chad really sums up the whole point of his plan when Howard finally asks him why he did it and he says “Because I could.” The theme behind this one, although I don’t think LaBute really knew it explicitly, is that evil very often requires the sanction of the victim. Why can Chad do this? Because no one knows evil when they see it; no one is on the look out. Howard allows himself to be manipulated — and gets what he deserves. This story reminds me of the Milgram psychology experiment in the 60’s where people were willing to give painful electric shocks to innocent victims because an authority figure told them to. Howard was told to hurt someone and he did it — without any thought — it didn’t matter. It is for this same reason that a guy like Hitler can come to power.

    There is an interesting interview with Neil LaBute available here.

    I thought a few of the questions and answers were particularly interesting because they expose the intuitive nature of art in general, as well as some points that expose some cultural assumptions. For example, the interviewer asks LaBute about the “retro sexism” in the film and whether he thinks that’s increasing in today’s society. I didn’t really see any sexism in the film and I’m curious about it. But LaBute in his response does make a valid point.

    LaBute: I don’t think that sexism necessarily ever went away at all. Of course, during the past 20 years we’ve started to overcome those archaic notions about a “woman’s place.” But at the same time, I think it is ludicrous to think that people who are better educated are likely to be less sexist or racist. Old tricks die hard. An education often refines hatred. A lot of people in the 80’s and 90’s have picked up a couple of diplomas, but it hasn’t changed their overall moral structure.

    Well, it’s certainly true that the morality of people is not affected by the number of diplomas they have. I wonder why? Could it be that morality isn’t taught in schools? In fact, it is purposefully avoided? Now, maybe LaBute is catching on.

    Then the interviewer wants to know why Chad isn’t punished for his actions in the end. LaBute replies:

    LaBute: It always seemed more potent to let Chad get away with everything. That gives the film a punch at the end that some people are taken aback by. We live in a “cause and effect” world. We tend to carry this idea over into movies. For many viewers, it’s just not fair that Chad gets away.

    Well, of course it’s more potent. Chad MUST get away with everything in order for the theme to make sense. LaBute has an excellent intuitive sense, but it appears as though, explicitly at least, he’s not really sure of the point of his movie. Chad gets away with it because evil requires the sanction of the victim — and THAT is the theme of the movie. Here LaBute points out, too, that viewers are upset by how “unfair” it is that Chad gets away with it. Yes, many people would see it that way. The same people who do not understand the reason behind why we punish criminals. LaBute nails it — we live in a cause and effect world.

    Interviewer: Has the scene in which Chad forces a young African-American intern to literally show that he “has the balls” for the job received controversial reactions?

    LaBute: Yes, some viewers have been taken aback by how Chad’s desire for humiliation and control actually force the intern into doing what he does. I think most are surprised by the degree to which the scene goes. It keeps notching itself up further and further. It starts with the general degrading of someone on a cultural level and then moves on to a sexually-specific humiliation. I wanted to show the breadth of Chad’s anger, hatred and need to control in every scene and with every kind of person. Chad’s venom is not limited to any kind of person.

    Yes, at first glance, this scene seems almost gratuitous. But it is, in fact, the key scene of the movie. Chad does not “force” the young man to do anything. And that’s what makes the scene so compelling. Chad does this “because he can.” It’s almost as if he is testing to see how far he can get the young man to go. One can actually feel sorry for Chad, because on some level he seems to know that his being able to go so far is only further proof of the moral cowardice that surrounds him. Chad is a very lonely person. He is, in a sense, a human – a very misguided human – living amongst sub-humans. Certainly people who would allow themselves to be so treated really deserve no compassion? If they think so little of themselves, why should Chad think more? I like that LaBute mentions “notching it up.” This is a classic political technique. The frog in boiling water.

    Unfortunately, at one point in the interview, LaBute reveals his own moral relativism.

    Labute: It’s not really my place to say who’s “right” or “wrong” in what they feel the film is trying to say. The film is not a soap-box lecture on the current state of anything. I think it’s more of a cinematic inkblot test. Everybody watches the same images and listens to the same words, but what people get from it differs wildly and depends entirely on what they bring to it. People seem to love analyzing other people’s reactions to the film, but many people would be just as well served by analyzing their own.

    It’s always been a bit surprising to me when an artist claims that he does not care what someone comes away with. It’s like not caring if someone understands you when you speak! And apparently that is the case.

    LaBute: I never set out to make the film a statement about any one particular theme and hopefully everyone will carry away something different. A film like this would have done itself a disservice if it had tied things up in a simple package. The film is certainly meant to raise more questions than answers. I feel no obligation to answer any of those questions.

    Well, why make the film? Everyone should come away with something different? Is it that LaBute doesn’t KNOW what he’s trying to say? Or that he doesn’t care if his art is crafted well enough to say it?

    I wonder if Mr. LaBute would think differently about his answers today. For a man with such a keen intuition, I hope so.

  2. ryan

    10 Sep 2012 - 3:12 am

    Eckhert said in an interview that he saw chad in rehab 10 years on. And sociopaths do burn out

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *