One of the most intriguing films of the past year is Dragged Across Concrete, S. Craig Zahler’s violent, hardboiled yarn about two misogynistic and racist cops (Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn) taking the law into their own hands. The film plays as a far-right (or even alt-right) fantasy, the two white leads lamenting “political correctness” while they harass witnesses and suspects who are exclusively non-white. Even the casting of Gibson and Vaughn is loaded. But Concrete hinges on the question of whether Zahler actually agrees with the mentality of his own film, whether he’s playing a larger game in giving us these exact characters at a time when everything else out of Hollywood is either liberal-minded or four-quadrant neutral. Short of an answer, the question alone makes Concrete into one of 2019’s most provocative films.
Part of me thinks In the Company of Men is the Dragged Across Concrete of the ‘90s. Playwright Neil LaBute adapted his own 1992 play about two white company men — one a sworn and highly vocal misogynist (Aaron Eckhart) and the other an angry and impressionable wimp (Matt Malloy) — into an award-winning commentary on vitriolic corporate culture and the weak men who historically dominate that culture. Rarely has a film about workplace gender wars been this explicit, this horrifying, this willing to jump right into battle rather than dwell on why the fight began in the first place. And rarely has this war seemed so woefully one-sided.
It should be stated up front that LaBute is not likely in the same boat with Company as Zahler is with Concrete, which is to say Company is more readily a condemnation than a glorification of the behavior it depicts. The character of Chad (played with cold brilliance by Eckhart) is the clear villain of the piece, thrown into sharpest relief against his weak-minded but arguably-just-as-guilty colleague Howard (Malloy). Company is a satire, and that’s obvious at a twenty-year remove from the film’s release; in 1997, though, the mere synopsis — two men set out to destroy a woman’s life — took a toll despite good reviews out of Sundance. It was tough to get women to see the film upon release, and most who saw and lauded the film in the years thereafter (at least based on what’s available on the internet today) were men.
In spite of LaBute’s intentions and in spite of the film’s uneven reception, though, the film itself shares that seedy quality so inextricable from Dragged Across Concrete. Chad’s designs are despicable, his methods self-serving, his motivations rooted in WASP entitlement, and yet we’re roped into his macho-machinations regardless of our own philosophies. It’s a mission movie, in a sense, and understanding Chad’s plan from the jump forces us to be engaged when things accelerate or when obstacles arise to divert that plan. The fact that we never believed in the plan, or even that we imagine ourselves as steadfast warriors for the other side, ceases to matter.
Which brings us to the meek Howard, who never believes in the plan. It doesn’t matter. He goes along with it under Chad’s consistent pressure, enjoys its fruits when it meets success, shies from it when things get real, and ultimately claims victimhood when Chad’s depth of malice is truly revealed. It doesn’t matter. Howard sets out to hurt someone in the same way that Chad does, riding what he feels is justifiable revenge after being dumped by his last girlfriend. He ends up hurting himself, too, along with the woman in the crosshairs, and of course we see in Howard an all-too-common player who claims that cheering from the sideline somehow means he’s less a part of the team.
In the Company of Men knows this about Howard, and underscores it thusly. LaBute’s own philosophy is clear in this aspect. But where is Chad’s comeuppance? How could Company let this paragon of toxic masculinity not only ride away into the sunset, but do so with a woman on his arm? Typically when a villain “wins” at the end, there’s some small sense that the film itself has the last laugh. But Chad’s destruction is absolute. He even gets a promotion. And much like Dragged Across Concrete, there’s a sick, lingering notion that In the Company of Men agrees with Chad, supports his philosophy, furthers it in other men by merely existing.
Let’s step back. In our comparison of these two films — which, granted, can never be apples-to-apples, as one apple from 1997 and another from 2019 aren’t likely to taste similar — we’ve been suggesting that Zahler’s Concrete is the more dangerous of the two, shutting the door on the label of “satire” that Company has as a foundation for its two despicable main characters. The real-life analogues, of course, shore this up in a way that transcends Concrete‘s actual screenplay:
…but, then again, there is a subplot featuring Tory Kittles’s Henry that eventually meanders into the film’s main plotline, and it’s Henry who survives to the end of the film. He’s the only one in either film that can be said to have a happy ending. So Concrete has a black man not only earning that ending but championing an arc to call his own in a movie that elsewhere seems so racist and vile. Held up against In the Company of Men, one wonders if giving Stacy Edwards’s Christine an arc of her own would have strengthened or jeopardized the pitch-blackness of LaBute’s film.
LaBute’s career is an interesting one, divided between film and theater and divided also between thematically rich character studies (the films The Shape of Things and Your Friends & Neighbors, the play In a Forest, Dark and Deep) and disappointing genre fare (Lakeview Terrace, the infamous Nicolas Cage remake of The Wicker Man, the new Netflix series The I-Land). Glancing through his listed works, it’s possible that one of two things characterizes his career: LaBute either never managed to find a powderkeg like he found with In the Company of Men, or that very powderkeg proved so controversial and eclipsing of the actual film that LaBute actively avoided it from that point forward.
Whether we chalk it up to the philosophy of the auteur in question, the social climate in which the movie was released, or an unavoidable combination of the two, LaBute never struck quite the same nerve as he did with his film debut. I don’t purport to suggest that he and Zahler share anything by way of political perspective, nor that the characters of In the Company of Men are anything but weak and soulless men, nor that Dragged Across Concrete can be redeemed by ending on an ostensibly inclusive note. For all its complications, I think Concrete is ultimately far more hollow than it first appears, and would probably fit better amongst the police-driven actioners of the ’90s. But In the Company of Men manages to remain a searing arraignment of toxic masculinity two decades after its release, only garnering more of that sick power for how easily it could apply to today.