approximately 18 minutes and 36 secondsTilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, a powerfully ambitious attorney who, having just taken her greatest leap up the corporate ladder, has also just stepped in a steaming pile of corruption.
roughly 16% of film's total running time
roughly 16% of film's total running time
Swinton has perhaps the most vivid first scenes of any of this year's nominees. After a crabby Sidney Pollack hollers "Where the **** is Karen Crowder?," we discover Swinton's Karen experiencing a pit-staining panic attack in a stall in the ladies room. In this brief, electrifying scene, Swinton wordlessly conveys the full depths of an as yet unknown despair (one that the audience will slowly, steadily, come to appreciate as the film's slow burn finds its boil).
And what does Swinton do as follow-up to her flopsweating bathroom break? Only the most exhilarating bit of screen acting StinkyLulu encountered in 2007. Swinton's Karen, in one moment, is rehearsing her answers to the set of questions she'll be answering at a press conference later that day while, in the next moment, she's offering more polished versions of the same answers to the cameras.
Karen's stuttering monologue both establishes the fact of Crowder's recent promotion to Chief Corporate Counsel while also providing necessary exposition about her company. But it's not simply the brilliant intercutting that anchors the tension of this sequence; it's also Swinton's adeptly crafted continuities between the rough and final drafts of Karen's self-obsessed performance of herself. Within this utterly banal corporate speak, Swinton gives us a fully textured portrait of Karen: a workaholic whose entire identity has become collapsed with her ability to do, and be praised for, her awful job.
In these two opening scenes -- at opposite ends of the narrative, thanks to Michael Clayton's savvily looping flashback structure -- Swinton provides a palpably emotional underpinning for all that is yet to befall Karen, a corporate automaton built to destroy.
In building a frighteningly unstable emotional foundation for Karen (we're always on the edge , wondering if her shell will just crack at any second), Swinton is able to make zippy work of the corporate intrigue required by the plot.
Whether misreading Clooney's Michael Clayton as a negligible hack...
Or contracting with a shady operation to do some dirty deeds...
Swinton maintains a simple clarity. For Karen, her job -- and everything related to it -- is more than a matter of life and death. It's not just that she has some daddy issues with her boss. It's not just that she has no life outside her own head. It's not even that she can barely dress herself. Rather, it's something simpler, something simply terrifying: without the carefully constructed illusion of her exceptional competence, Karen is nothing. For behind that mask, Swinton's Karen knows she has no self, no soul, no nothing. And it's from the threatened revelation of this fact that Swinton's Karen so desperately flees.
Almost any decent actress could have made Karen Crowder workable, even memorable. But where Swinton elevates the role is in distilling Karen's motivations to their essence. Instead of crafting some subtextual psychological alibi for Karen's workaholism (as most very good actresses might have done), Swinton smartly chooses to play the character's desperation as purely elemental, an animal need for survival. All of which makes the grim pleasure of Karen's actual devastation all the more thrilling.
In her final confrontation with Michael Clayton (George Clooney, better than he's ever been), Swinton's Karen Crowder does truly get hers. But rather than making Karen's downfall a simple act of spectacular humiliation (yank the dragonlady's wig and watch her squeal!), the film takes a smarter, scarier path: Karen's forced to understand how badly she's miscalculated her adversary.
And it's through Karen's abjection -- collapsing in a blur ("see if the she needs medical attention") -- that Swinton's Karen underscores the overarching/underlying principle of this post-modern passion play: the incalculable cost of selling one's soul for the promise of power. (In this excellent final scene, the morality play dimensions fall into focus: Clooney's Michael is Everyman; Wilkinson's Arthur is the ascending angel; and Swinton's Karen is hurtling into hellmouth.)
It's a really good part in a finely crafted film. But what Swinton brings is astonishing actressing at the edges. Indeed, Tilda Swinton's Karen Crowder might just be one of the greater nominated Supporting Actress performances. We'll just have to see whether Swinton's expert work brings Karen's redemption in the form of a little gold statue...