Matt Damon, in 'The Informant!'

Dir. Steven Soderbergh
(2009, R, 108 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

When The Informant! starts we know exactly what it’s about, but when it ends we’re not so sure. That’s the wily brilliance of Steven Soderbergh’s film, establishing clear heroes and villains — white hats and black hats — and then turning everyone a little gray. It’s an elusive character study about deception — self-deception in particular — hidden under a straightforward crusader story.

Matt Damon gives one of his strongest performances as corporate whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, a doughy biochemist working for Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), an agricultural company involved in an international price-fixing scheme. He has a picture of his life as an uplifting American-dream narrative; a little luck and a lot of hard work have brought him up from childhood tragedy to rising stardom in business, with a loving family to support at home.

As he works to implicate his coworkers, we hear in voice-over Mark’s train of thought wander to trivial minutiae, some of it sadly reflective of his life (polar bears in hiding, ants scrounging food to survive), and some of it just insipid irrelevancies to show a mind always thinking, but often about the wrong things at the wrong times. Sometimes it’s their lack of significance that is the most revealing; he gets lost in details as a defense mechanism, or to reinforce his sense of justice. Consider his detailed memory of a Renaissance festival, which he uses to ruminate about fairness. He’s sharper than he lets on, and perhaps more deluded than we realize.

All the while he flashes that optimistic grin, seeming naive and genuinely befuddled by the situation he’s in. Marvin Hamlisch scores the film with bright melodies that belie the increasing desperation of Mark’s circumstances, much the way his disposition does. The FBI gets involved and lets poor Mark dig himself deeper, lets him delude himself into thinking his future is still bright with possibilities, but the deeper the FBI gets, the more they need to be dug out. The investigation reveals very bad men at ADM. It reveals bad men and women in the government too, who are more nobly motivated but corruptible and self-interested in their own way. And then there’s Mark, the wholesome family man, who may be a bad man and not even know it.

The screenplay is by Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum), based on a book by Kurt Eichenwald. It deftly conceals mysteries even in the things we think we know for sure, deconstructs them in a way that feels like the pulling apart of reality, because in a way it is. We assume Mark’s point of view so fully — his beliefs, ambitions, and mental tangents — that we don’t know where reality ends and he begins. And in the end we don’t know whether this story of black hats has any white ones left.