A writer of obituaries witnesses a girl get hit by a car. He takes her to the hospital and is disarmed by her beauty and taken in by her youthful charm. A girl who isn’t who she claims to be. A doctor lost, then found. A woman who is a recent victim of infidelity. They all have one thing in common — they thrive on the unexpected.
The story establishes a pattern of behavior with narrow-shouldered rake Daniel Woolf (Jude Law), who falls in love with adorable Alice Ayres (Natalie Portman) and apparently leaves his girlfriend to be with her. We quickly learn that Alice becomes his muse and he writes a book about her life. The book’s about to be published and his agent has arranged for Daniel to have his picture taken for the jacket by professional photographer Anna Cameron (Julia Roberts).
As is his nature, Daniel makes a pass at Anna and she is receptive. Alice arrives at Anna’s studio and is perceptibly aware of the encounter between her boyfriend and the photographer, so she asks Daniel to leave so she can confront Anna in private. Anna takes Alice’s picture, a haunting portrait of a girl crying in pain at her boyfriend’s betrayal.
Later, Alice’s picture is featured in Anna’s exhibit, called “Strangers.” By the time of the opening, Anna has met and become involved with dermatologist Larry Gray (Clive Owen) — the circumstances of their meeting and union actually facilitated by Daniel, oddly, because he’s become obsessed with Anna.
Now, even though they are already in committed relationships, Daniel and Anna become involved and are forced to come clean to their respective partners, as they want to move on and be together finally.
Although they still love their ex-partners, the two injured parties end up being involved in a tryst together — a cure for loneliness for Alice, an act of retribution for the blow to Larry’s male ego at the hands of Daniel. Alice’s revenge will come later, on her own time, and only as narcissistic Daniel’s belly is exposed.
Based on the play by the same name written by Patrick Marber, Closer was directed by Mike Nichols, who is known for extracting verbose and heartbreaking performances from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966), Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel (Carnal Knowledge, 1971), and Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell (Silkwood, 1983).
When fickle Anna changes her mind and decides to go back with Larry, Daniel’s only option is to run back to Alice’s eager arms. She dusts herself off and takes him back easily. But Daniel is plagued with the question of whether Alice ended up in Larry’s bed, which she emphatically denies. Daniel simply will not accept her answer, which proves costly for him and his future with Alice.
It’s only after Alice and Daniel go their separate ways that we learn the truth about seemingly guileless Alice. She had told Larry — after he demanded to know — that her real name was “plain Jane Jones.” This is proven to be a fact as we see Alice in customs flashing her passport. Simultaneously, Dan — on a lonely, disheveled walk — visits the same park where he first took Alice, the Memorial to Heroic Sacrifice, and he sees the name Alice Ayres on the wall, a memorial to a young woman who “at the cost of her own young life, rescued three children from a fire.” Meaning that she lied about her name for the entirety of their relationship, and presumably about her life, which was the subject of his book. But what does it all mean?
But what about that ambiguous ending?
What’s clear is that Alice/Jane is the central character. In the beginning of the story, she doesn’t yet know what she wants. Finding men and getting them to fall in love with her is easy. But she’s in a strange land, and her technique is fool-proof. She even declares, “I’m a waif.” The crossing-against-the-light routine is plausible, since she is not a Londoner, but only just landed from New York. She furthers the gag when she sees the name on the wall that suits her. Perhaps she has just left a man in New York, as she later says to Daniel, “I’m the one who leaves.”
Maybe the failed relationship in New York serves as a parable to her, and she needs to remind herself that she is that strong woman who leaves, so she boards the first flight out to somewhere, anywhere else. The whole thing is an experiment. She is going to play her cards right this time, and be the manipulator, not the manipulated. When Daniel proves to be just like other men, she is disheartened but not discouraged, bruised but not broken. Jane (Alice) was prepared for this inevitability from the start, which was why she did not give her real name. In her young life, men have proven to be imminently corruptible and frustratingly predictable. So she played it cagey from the start and in the end, cut her losses and returned to New York.
Also, notice that in the final scene, Jane appears to be back in New York, and apparently crossing against the light.