is one of the better ethical dramas in a while. What makes it so much more satisfying than it had any right to be is the ultimate respect Roger Michell has for his characters (with due respect to writers Taylor and Tolkin, who have fashioned a complex, intriguing script). Michell never once makes fun of his characters, never patronizes them or contrives things to put them through hell; he respects their flaws and intelligence, and therefore most mishaps and consequences come from their own responsibility, decisions, and luck. Gavin and Doyle are both deeply flawed men trying to walk the line between doing the right thing and doing what's best for themselves, which are often mutually exclusive tasks.
The film could have easily turned into some lame revenge flick where jerks did clever things to each other in a battle for one-upmanship. Instead, Michell steers his narrative down a very introverted path; as each decision that the two guys are faced with, the importance of their choice and the gravity of the consequences of that choice increases exponentially. When Gavin is finally at wit's end, his body noticeably slumps under the pressure and his voice cracks with fear -- I'd have to say, it's probably the best work I've ever seen Affleck do, but that ain't saying much. I think the guy pretty much sucks in everything, so to see him be competent here -- almost remarkable, is quite something. Jackson is weak early on; his whining on the FDR and in the courtroom is annoying. But he finds his footing when he becomes aggressive, and his scenes with William Hurt are exceptional.
I loved all the small ironies that exist throughout -- when a character finally decides to do the right thing, he is punished for it. When he does something wrong (like when Gavin lies), he gets rewarded (with a free yacht). At one point, committing a crime is the only way for Gavin to avoid going to jail. I loved the small performances -- Dylan Baker is tremendous as usual (early contender for Best Supporting Actor, even in such a small role), and Jackson's wife is quite striking. Hurt, Collette, and a surprising Amanda Peet are all good. Again, these performances -- including Sydney Pollock's amusing take -- are due to Michell giving them room to be human. No one in this film is remotely black or white, ethically (which is why I loved the subtlety of the racism angle), and even the "villains" have viable arguments. The photography is also damn good: the narrative is actually told as much through images as in action, such as blurry or dark character faces, subtle camera moves that reveal or suggest things that aren't spoken. When both of these struggling men find a way to take personal responsibility in the end, it's not just an obvious move -- as some condescending directors would make it. It's close to heroic: in a world where ethics are so shady that doing the right thing is completely relative, being nice to people and standing up for yourself takes balls.
I did find flaws in places; a few brief sequences needed a polish in pacing (I'm not nominating this editor for ANY awards; not only was the pacing off but some information was clearly ommitted and not for artistic reasons, while other points were made redundant), one situation (the second car crash) was very difficult to believe (too perfectly positioned), and Jackson takes almost too long to give us strong acting. Nevertheless, it's a really well directed and thoughtfully written essay on ethics, and like any good film it poses more questions than it answers.