I spent the first act trying to categorize this film: Is The Dying Gaul a psychological drama? a love story? a character-driven domestic thriller? It kept me off-balance and guessing for a long while, which was a welcome change.
The story in a nutshell: aspiring screenwriter Robert Sandrich (Sarsgaard) meets with high-powered Hollywood producer Jeffrey Tishop (Scott), who wants to option Robert’s screenplay… but only if Robert consents to one deeply substantive change. As he wrestles with his guilt over selling out, Robert bonds with Jeffrey’s wife Elaine (Clarkson), herself a disillusioned former screenwriter. Three powerhouse actors — Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson, and Peter Saaaarsgaaaaaard — take the chief roles, and they’re a large part of what makes the film so quietly, intensely gripping.
Campbell Scott plays the serpent with great bonhomie, painting Jeffrey as a man who takes his power, his persuasiveness, and his pleasures as givens, as absolute and unquestioned rights. Patricia Clarkson walks a delicate line, balancing Elaine’s kindness and compassion with her potent rage, manipulative skill, and a deep hunger for vengeance. And it’s such a pleasure to see Sarsgaard exercise his considerable talents playing something other than his recent stable of heavy-lidded crazies. He’s remarkable here: charming and nervous and sexy and petty and grave. The film rotates around the dynamic between these three, but power and money loom large as silent characters in this tale.