Mike Nichols, at 73, proves yet again that he is one of the very best directors in the game, and arguably the best actor's director there is. One of his finest moments was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (his debut, incidentally) which was a stagy film about adult material that broke a few written and unwritten rules about filmmaking in Hollywood. It showed Nichols' courage, but it also showed his ability to make great movies using only a handful of characters and placing them in a rather confined environment. Closer very much follows that same path.
Today, few subjects can be said to be controversial, but Closer is an emotionally controversial film. It is a cynical and cold look at relationships and how the people involved in them act not only without knowing what is best for them, but perhaps even deliberately, self-destructingly so. Nichols' direction is brilliantly clean-cut and refined. His approach is calculating but open and fair, as he strips his characters down (literally) to the bone in order to expose them. He isn't interested in the cute parts of the relationships (the film intentionally skips them, this is not a particularly rewarding film), but sternly confronts the challenging and high-strung situations the characters find themselves in. The film is pessimistic, but also charming, humorous and sexy. Had it been directed by Adrian Lyne, it would also have been packed with graphic sexual scenes, but Nichols' minimalistic approach is effective and poignant. The script by Patrick Marber (based on his own play) is playful and literate and contains some great dialogue – an aspect of moviemaking that sometimes seems to have been forgotten in the current fast-paced business.
Closer is a film of its time and it knows its characters far better than they know themselves. It elegantly avoids seeming plotted, because the characters keep surprising themselves just as much as they surprise us. They don't know themselves, and certainly not each other. They are clever, but not too clever – and that can be said for the film too. And the performances are all magnificent. Julie Roberts does some of her best dramatic work here, Jude Law shows that he's able to be incredibly nuanced (this was the sort of role I pictured him in when I first saw him in I Love You, I Love You Not many years ago) and Natalie Portman, in her first challenging adult role, confirms the talent that has been transparent since her extraordinary debut in Léon ten years ago. Still, the real scene-stealer here is Clive Owen whose intensity and rawness is breathtaking.