I had been mulling over a post entitled "Tom Wilkinson kicks ass" raving about his performance in "Michael Clayton". In this film, he has a supporting role as a lawyer who has a manic-depressive moment while interviewing a witness for a class action suit.
He strips naked and professes his devotion to one of the plaintiffs. (Thankfully, and with all due respect to Mr. Wilkinson, this happens off camera.) Problem is that his job is with the defendant's team.
Tom Wilkinson was "just another one of those British actors" before he really made an impression in "The Full Monty". Then he started getting more interesting roles. He really broke through with a masterful performance in "In the Bedroom" as the father of a boy who is murdered by a vengeful husband. He is still doing mostly supporting performances, as is typical for actors of his age, but he shines again in "Michael Clayton".
It is very easy to do a hack job playing a person with mental illness. Most actors just behave weirdly and illogically, and with excesses of anger and sadness, and that combination is supposed to represent mental illness. (BTW, Nicole Kidman did even worse than that in "The Hours" but because she had a fake nose on and had been jobbed for "Moulin Rouge", the film she deserved recognition for, she got an Oscar for "The Hours", even when she was the weak link in the trio of actresses in that film. But I digress. Well, not really since my point was about portraying mental illness.)
Anyway, Wilkinson is masterful at conveying the logic of a man undergoing a "moment of clarity" induced by going of his meds. He realizes that his job essentially consists of defending a rotten corporation that consciously did a cost-benefit analysis and decided to poison its customers. I think it is easy to play such a role incorrectly: to either be too righteous or too nutty. Wilkinson does a great job portraying a person aware of his own mental illness and struggling to decide which of his thoughts are valid and which are solely a result of manic depression. And under all of that is his own legal knowledge, which bursts through in a moment when he's discussing with George Clooney the firm's options in terms of trying to keep him quiet.
Or, to put it differently, Wilkinson is handed a very complex, realistic character and does a masterful job bringing him to screen. I really think he steals the film from George Clooney, who is no slouch in "Michael Clayton" by any means.
Based on what I've seen so far, I would put Wilkinson in the lead for any "Best Supporting Actor" consideration for 2007.
And that brings me to Tommy Lee Jones. I had last seen him in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada", where he did a fine job playing a bilingual rancher investigating the death of a Mexican who he'd worked with. In "In the Valley of Elah", Jones is again playing a man investigating a suspicious death, in this case the death of his son, Michael, a soldier recently returned from Iraq. "Elah" is an interesting film - it would be really easy to do a hack job of a film like this, stridently criticizing the war in Iraq and the concomitant dehumanization of everybody involved. Paul Haggis does a much better job than that. The story is well-balanced and, indeed, seems very friendly to the military perspective throughout. And a key to that angle is the great job Jones does playing a career military man.
"Elah" succeeds magnificently because it "keeps it real", depicting the soldiers with such detail and care that it is easy to imagine these people being people one knows in real life. The horror of the war zone is communicated mostly through videos Michael had recorded with his cell phone, that were damaged in fire and which we see only distorted scenes from. As more details come out about Michael's death, his father's feeling of confidence and of understanding the world are gradually beaten down, though he soldiers on throughout.
I don't know quite what to say about the film as a whole. I think the best anti-war movies and stories are the ones that simply show what happens when war is going on. With the ill-conceived war in Iraq, this should be fairly simple, and yet doing the simple is often very difficult, because the temptation for overt anger and grandstanding is so great. Well, "Elah" his the mark exactly right.
The film is bookended with two scenes where Jones is dealing with the American flag. At the beginning of the film, he sees a building with the flag upside down, and pulls over and finds the person in charge of the flag, a Salvadoran, and explains to him that the upside-down flag is a symbol of distress while they take the flag down and put it back up in the proper position. At the end of the film (is this a spoiler?) he drives by the same flagpost and puts up a flag from Iraq sent by his son, and specifically flies it upside-down, while using duct tape on the flagpost to keep it fixed in that position. The implication is a bit melodramatic, but people are melodrmatic from time to time, especially with symbols like flags.
Jones might get a Best Actor nomination, the film and the writing should. I would rate Jones' performance very highly, though still a notch below Philip Seymor Hoffman in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead". Hopefully one of the two will win, but more likely something awful will happen like Tom Cruise winning. (OK, I shouldn't prejudge "Lions for Lambs", but Cruise makes it so hard not to.)
In summary, I highly recommend both of these films. "Elah" is probably a better film, but I think Wilkinson does the better acting job.