On the surface, it’s easy to think of Claire Montgomery as a minor attraction in “Go,” a straight-laced girl devoid of a chapter heading and alternating between audience surrogate (lines like “Who’s Todd Gaines?” may deliver needed exposition, but do the character no favors) and supermarket Jiminy Cricket who doesn’t stand a chance of being remembered among the meaty performances of Sarah Polley’s cynical Ronna, Timothy Olyphant’s dangerously playful Todd, or the id-in-a-candy-store that’s Desmond Askew’s Simon. Yet there’s a reason director Doug Liman places the first iteration of Claire’s speech about the profound joy of surprises immediately after the credits sequence. It’s a topic sentence for the film, surely—at the end of it, nearly all the characters have experienced a ride they could never have expected and won’t soon forget. But more deeply, while there are many opportunities for Claire’s character to do both too much and too little, in Katie Holmes’ hands, she’s the one really changed by the surprising journey, subtly but irrevocably.
Near the film’s beginning, after the initial stakes have been revealed, Claire prefaces her question to Ronna of what she’s going to do about her imminent eviction with “At the risk of sounding like me.” The line is an early trap, but Holmes deftly maneuvers it without, ironically, any of the precious self-awareness that characterized “Dawson’s Creek,” the television vehicle that put her on the map. She quickly regrets the inquiry when she gets used, in so many words, as collateral in Ronna’s increasingly desperate drug-dealing agenda. While there are probably worse fates than having to spend an hour or two with Olyphant, it’s understandable that the casually intense way he regards her, as a cat does a ball of yarn, would make her ill at ease.
Yet Holmes doesn’t overplay Claire’s discomfort. In fact, what makes her performance refreshing amid all the chaos is that it’s consistently internal yet simultaneously relatable. Certainly, her tension when Todd asks her if she’s a virgin is palpable, as is her relief when she realizes he’s making a “The Breakfast Club” reference to her name. But amid characters who yaw wildly within scenes (Simon) and those whose emotional makeup remains somewhat enigmatic (Ronna), Holmes manages to make Claire a quietly open book.
Of course, we get to know her better the next morning. After a long, wet night, she runs into Todd in a coffee shop and accosts him, to his surprise and genuine delight. The only-in-the-’90s combination of ginseng and Dexatrim she admits she’s on surely makes her a bit more forward, but when she, with the right note of shy expressiveness, tells him that he’s “the first nonfake person I’ve met here,” he’s touched in addition to being amused. When we cut to the two of them hooking up on the internal stairs in Todd’s building, it’s not just the logical conclusion to a night of raving—Claire is no longer some sexless, joyless fifth wheel. She’s actually had a good time, against all odds.
When the Vegas storyline turns up for resolution, our newly emboldened Claire takes control, shouting down the room before bullets can fly. And when the scene devolves into a Simon-shooting spectator sport, Claire decides that her long night is over; she’s got to go to work. Her reaction to hearing Simon take his punishment off-screen is once again note-perfect, and while there’s a coda wrapping up Ronna’s story, the movie could have ended there with Claire brushing off the adventure and returning to her life—in fact, until my rewatch, I thought it did.
When all is said and done, for Claire Montgomery, there was no drug-fueled craziness, no talking cats, no tantric sex and flaming curtains. Yet in the end, thanks to an understated and nuanced performance from Holmes, she not only actually had fun but realized that doing so was OK. As she herself asked, Who woulda thunk it?
John Ramos is the producer of the documentary film “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” and a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Previously.TV, Slate, Television Without Pity, NPR’s Monkey See blog, and Tomato Nation, among others.