In the Company of men

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Writer-director Neil LaBute's debut feature is a Swiftian fable about the evils of male chauvinist piggery, deceptively presented as a realistic drama exposing the horrors of the white-collar class. The film centers around Chad (Aaron Eckhart), a handsome young sociopath and his hapless sidekick Howard (Matt Malloy), a bumbling schlump in dire need of direction -- together they almost form a complete personality.

The story begins with Chad expounding on the evils of women, drawing the malleable Howard into his curdled perspective and finally convincing him to participate in an elaborate revenge. The two are going out of town for six weeks on a business trip and while there they will find a suitably vulnerable woman, wine and dine her and declare their undying love (separately but in secret cahoots) and then, when the six weeks are up, tell her that it was all a joke. Just to see the expression on her face. Life may mistreat us later on, Chad explains, but we'll always have that moment of triumph to cherish.

The victim they light on turns out to be a deaf secretary, Christine (Stacy Edwards), but just as the film's cruelty quotient reaches a very unpleasant level, LaBute complicates his plot with the intrusion of genuine emotion. Howard actually falls in love; Chad seems to be falling in love; and by the time we're mid-way through the film, it's no longer clear whether it's Christine or we who are being conned.

LaBute tells his story in a series of static, carefully framed shots that emphasize the hermetically sealed world the two young businessmen operate in. Co-workers are grinning ciphers, to be dismissed as idiots when not around, and the duo's out-of-town workplace is so pristinely new it's unfinished, much like themselves.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with Eckhart a standout as the smooth id-monster. LaBute has marshaled the film's modest resources in a manner that deepens in impact as the story unfolds. At first you may feel as though you've fallen into the hands of an exacting pamphleteer, but after a while it's clear that this is nothing as mundane as a mere morality tale. This is a movie by a guy who's out to give the audience a swift kick in the teeth.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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