DENVER — "It's the most violent movie I've ever seen," says one woman viewer about Neil LaBute's debut film, "In the Company of Men."
But nary a drop of blood is shed. The violence is all emotional. Two yuppies who have recently suffered failed relationships plot to wreak vengeance on the entire female sex. They choose a vulnerable woman, a deaf typist, as their target, and shower attention on her. When they have her hooked on one or the other, they plan to cruelly dump her.
The film has garnered much attention and controversy. Many viewers find it a forceful indictment of the abuse of power in the workplace. They understand that "In the Company of Men" exposes a predatory mind-set, just as contemporary playwright David Mamet does. Mr. LaBute attacks male aggression and the narcissism of a power-hungry manipulator.
But others are deeply offended by the misogyny of the characters, LaBute's cool storytelling, and the fact that the main perpetrator gets away with it.
In a recent interview, LaBute discussed the "the liquid reality" he was after.
"I find that to the degree to which you show your hand, people are prevented from rummaging around and finding their own message in a film. The baggage people bring to [the film] tends to be different....
"But I can't imagine anyone watching Chad [the instigator] and saying, 'That's the way I want to live.' And that's where you see the moral base of it."
While the film appears to be about manipulating a woman, Chad is really manipulating everyone. He is an "equal-opportunity hater," says LaBute, and there is one particularly irksome scene in which he humiliates a young African-American trainee. But it's his co-conspirator Howard whom he lulls into complacency and then subverts with the company.
LaBute says he did all he could to keep Chad's agenda covert. "Chad would never be overt. He is a survivor. He knows his milieu. What he has done to Christine, it's a terrible thing - you might even call it sexual harassment because of the power differential in the workplace. But he wouldn't lose his job over it the way he would if the company realized how he was undermining their own project [just to undermine Howard]."
LaBute refers to the film as a kind of Old Testament statement: "Here's the sin and here's the payment," he says. But it isn't the monster who pays; it's the man seduced into a cruel act.
If Howard had refused to hurt Christine, Chad would never have had the chance to leapfrog over him to a better position. "Howie doesn't learn," says LaBute. "He is recognizably human. He even falls in love with Christine."
It takes some work for the viewer to read the film's clues, enter the debate, and come to some individual conclusions. But LaBute likes it that way.
"It's very much better to raise the debate than to give all the answers," LaBute says. "Anyway, the fact that I raise these questions doesn't mean I have all the answers."