Just like Mercedes McCambridge, Tilda Swinton uses her unique voice to her biggest advantage but unlike Sadie Burke, Karen Crowder is not strong or dominating – she would like to be but actually she suffers from her insecurity and neurotic nature, especially in circumstances she can’t handle. Tilda Swinton presents Karen as a woman who was promoted in a job she just can’t handle and who slowly loses control over everything. By this, her Karen becomes not a villain you hate but rather a villain you pity.
Another similarity to Mercedes McCambridge is the fact that Karen Crowder, like Sadie Burke, is not the greatest role ever written but both actresses saw the potential and the strength and added their own personality and screen presence. In her first scene in the bathroom, Tilda Swinton already shows how everything has become too much for Karen and even though the audience doesn’t know yet what’s going on, it’s a captivating introduction.
This is followed by a fascinating montage in which Karen is rehearsing answers for an interview, constantly saying them again and again until she gives polished and seemingly spontaneous answers to the camera. Tilda Swinton opens the whole character up in those scenes and shows how much her job controls her life and how willing she is to let herself be controlled like this even though she can’t truly handle it.
Later, Tilda Swinton establishes these ideas further when she first meets Michael Clayton. Her aggressiveness because he is late and her disbelieve at his thoughts again show how touchy she is, how easily she lets her suspicions overtake her character and how she seems unable to judge a situation spontaneously.
In her later scenes, Tilda Swinton again shows Karen’s doubts and fears when she decides to take a way that will lead her into some dark territory. Like a child who is unable to play with the adults, Karen Crowder is lost in her own web of intrigues.
Her biggest moment is her final scene in which she basically runs the whole amount of Karen’s emotions in just a few seconds from happiness to shock to inability to handle her talk with Clayton to complete panic.
As mentioned before, it’s a fantastic performance of a very human villain.