What makes Tony Gilroy's movies so impossible to resist?
Tough gig, sometimes, writing profiles for The New Yorker. The awful pressure to be definitive, the prison of the house style, the maddened pedants in the fact-checking department. ... You can do your damnedest, you can be Hazlitt on speed, but your 7,000 or 8,000 words, by the time everyone's through with them, will seem to have taken on the character of some elaborately redundant civic function—like a dedication ceremony, in full pomp, for a statue that was stolen the previous night.
Such, at least, must be the excuses for D.T. Max's recent profile of writer-director Tony Gilroy. Or is it simply that Max has no affection for Gilroy's movies? His piece trundles us steadily through the Gilroy oeuvre, from Dolores Claiborne(Gilroy's adaptation of a Stephen King novel) and The Devil's Advocate (which he rewrote) to the Bourne trilogy (which he scripted), and then to Michael Clayton and this year's Duplicity (both of which he wrote and directed). Gilroy's knack for plotting—perhaps the least of his gifts—is discussed at length, and he is allowed to talk some rather tedious Hollywood shop, bitching about directors and so on. His great themes, however, and his great scenes, go unremarked: George Clooney as Michael Clayton, at the end of his rope, receiving some silent and inexplicable dispensation from three horses on a pre-dawn hillside in Westchester, N.Y.; Al Pacino as Satan in The Devil's Advocate, riding the New York subway, informing a man who has just pulled a knife on him that the man's wife is at home, splayed merrily across their green bedspread and enjoying a crack orgy with his best friend ("You ain't right, man," says the rattled aggressor, backing off. "Oh, I'm right!" Pacino promises him.); Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, prodded from sleep on a Zurich park bench by two officious policemen, dismantling them with such immediacy that the film, for a second or two, appears to be going backward. (Or maybe we should give that scene to the director. In which case: Here's to you, Doug Liman!)
Gilroy's characters do a lot of their talking and thinking on the precipice of damnation, but you couldn't quite call him a moralist. Clint Eastwood is a moralist—in a Clint Eastwood movie, if there's the remotest danger that you might be missing the point, somebody will explain it to you in a rustically worded voice-over. The voice-over that inaugurates Michael Clayton, by contrast, is a visionary rant, delivered by Tom Wilkinson in the character of disintegrating lawyer Arthur Edens. "I'm begging you, Michael, try and make believe this is not just madness because this is not just madness. ..." It's a bravura piece of monologue, a rolling psychotic break, terribly sincere but scarcely to be relied upon. Very few things, in the end, are to be relied upon in Gilroy's films. Heis subtle, equivocal, and fascinated by corruption; what he might be, actually, is a lightly camouflaged mid-20th-century Catholic novelist. Michael Clayton is one of Graham Greene's burnt-out cases: the fixer, the mop-up man in hock to his own conscience, driving from place to place with his jaw working and his mouth turned down as if masticating some great sour wad of experience. Murderess Dolores Claiborne, after Gilroy gets done with her, seems more native to the pages of François Mauriac than those of Stephen King; thick-fleshed, dense with secrets, some kind of avenger, carrying the cold Maine coastline inside her as Mauriac's Therèse Desqueyroux carries the heat waves of Argelouse, France. As for The Devil's Advocate, it's The Firm dunked in a cauldron of folk Catholicism; look out, there's Pacino/Satan at the back of the church, making the holy water boil!
And then there's Jason Bourne. Gilroy snatched Bourne out of the books of Robert Ludlum, the sort of books that the big, red-faced guy in the plane seat next to yours is always frowning over, and sent him on a theological thrill ride. His Bourne begins where we all begin, in the absurd condition of man—no idea how he got here, no idea where he's going, but fatally impinged upon by a species of cosmic guilt. Like Shield Sheafson in Beowulf, he is an oceanic foundling: Out of the water he comes at the beginning of the cycle (the Mediterranean, whence his unconscious, amnesiac body is plucked by some passing fishermen), and back into the water he goes at its end, committing himself to the East River with a gorgeous multistory swan dive.
Bourne appears isolated, attached to nothing, but invisible tiers of surveillance are stacked around this man: CCTV, bugged phones, hacked mainframes, narrow-eyed strangers on street corners, muttering into their collars. Angels and demons are watching, the good CIA versus the bad CIA, and his every move sets off a chain reaction across the spook world. Poor Noah Vosen, playing a crooked CIA deputy director in The Bourne Ultimatum, spends the entire movie having a shit fit in his information bunker: "What's Bourne doing? Where's he going? Gimme eyes, people! I need eyes!" The noncrooked deputy director, played by Joan Allen, is tracking Bourne too: He is, as it were, both divinely and infernally monitored. As Norman Mailer, that marvelous crypto-Catholic, proposed in a 1975 interview with Partisan Review, "Why wouldn't God and the Devil have their department of dirty tricks? You know, see them as some sort of sublime extension of the CIA."
Duplicity, rather inconveniently for my thesis, is not about good and bad at all. Or rather, it's exclusively about bad: Its main characters, a pair of industrial spies played by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, live and move and have their being in an atmosphere of total selfishness, total venality. No souls are in jeopardy here, having been discarded long before, and this, somewhat uneasily, is what makes the movie a comedy: Human beings, even lovers, cannot trust one another, ha ha. And the secret formula everyone's scrambling for? The Grail, the great industrial end-all? It turns out to be ... well, you'll just have to go and see it.
The kingdom of God breaks through in one place in Duplicity, though, and very Gilroy-esquely. A harmless, sentimental travel agent, caught up in the grand scam and efficiently bedded by Clive Owen, gets hauled before the company security officer. In her mind, she was being romanced by a gallant pediatric cardiologist en route to join his team in Africa—now she learns that he was a dastardly spy who only wanted her access codes. She weeps, she is a wreck: "He talked about the children ... about mending their broken hearts. ..." Julia Roberts sits across the table, watching with dead-eyed scorn. But suddenly the woman, through her tears, grows defiant. She doesn't care if it was all a lie. It was magnificent! "He made me feel special," she exults. "Like I was the only one in the world!" Now there's belief for you—faith, or something like it.
D.T. Max, my brother scribe, can you see why I wanted a bit more from you? Gilroy is special. No one else is doing what he does, with his mix of worldliness and indignant virtue. He's written plenty of great lines, but I keep coming back to Clooney, as Michael Clayton, on that bare slope of ground, wordlessly confronted by those horses. For unbearable seconds he watches them, searches them, until at last permission is given: He will be allowed to start again. His face moves in acknowledgement, or gratitude. If he fell to his knees, we wouldn't be surprised. And then, at the bottom of the hill, his car explodes.
James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.
Photograph of Tony Gilroy by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images.