2007Director: Tony Gilroy
Cast: George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson
ichael Clayton has simply no right to be as good as it is. Working firmly within the “hot-shot-lawyer-battles-evil-establishment” genre, you’d think there’d be no new territory to explore that hasn’t already been beaten to a pulp, sucked dry, and incinerated via car bomb by countless John Grisham adaptations. And in general, first-time director Tony Gilroy doesn’t exactly shatter the mold either as he weaves his tale of a corporate “fixer” (George Clooney) who grows weary of cleaning up the muddy and often bloody messes made by this great nation’s over-privileged and under-principled financial elite. But despite the film’s garden variety premise (and its astonishingly bland, clunky title), Michael Clayton is consistently riveting from start to almost-finish. Amidst this season’s ever-increasing assemblage of statement-films and Oscar-baiting prestige projects, here’s one that actually transcends the perceived gravity of its subject matter. The movie succeeds by providing a generous helping of intrigue with its social commentary, instead of simply decrying the state of corporate America while expecting to shock the audience with the Earth-shattering revelation that corporations are often run by, um, pretty terrible people.
It helps the film’s cause, of course, that the names Gilroy (who wrote all three Bourne movies and the awesome guilty pleasure, The Devil’s Advocate) and Clooney (the little-known star of Return of the Killer Tomatoes) count for more than merely prestige points. The terrifying formality of back-room blood deals showcased in Gilroy’s Bourne trilogy is in deep focus here, allowing every cold late-autumn landscape, every wrinkled sneering face, and every $5000 suit to ooze with insidious allure and deadly menace. Meanwhile, as in 2005’s Syriana, Clooney successfully sheds his movie star persona in favor of a vulnerable performance, marked by weary disillusionment. Clooney, whose premature gray hairs are finally starting to pay off, isn’t old enough yet to achieve the grizzled brilliance of Paul Newman’s turn in the similarly-themed classic, The Verdict. But he does display the same withered combination of desperation and defiance exhibited by an aging relic trying to accomplish just one good deed before his career is finished.
The good deed in question revolves around Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a friend and colleague of Clayton and also the top litigator for the corporate law film, Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen. While leading a defense team that represents a despicable agrochemical company called U-North, the manic-depressive Edens ditches his medication, has an attack of clarity and conscience, and strips naked during a deposition in a misguided attempt to show his sympathy for one of the plaintiffs, a young woman whose family and farm have been devastated by U-North’s willful negligence. Clayton is sent in to ameliorate the situation by getting Edens back on his meds and keeping him quiet until the case is either dropped or settled out-of-court. But when the titular hero realizes that his old friend has been quietly building a case against UNorth, Clayton figures it might be a good time to join his colleague and start doing the right thing.
Now if Gilroy had made Clayton’s conflict as simple as “fight the power or keep my scummy, deplorable job” then it’d be hard to have a great deal of sympathy for the guy’s situation. But things are complicated by the fact that Clayton has gambled away his life savings and therefore needs the $80,000 payment he’ll receive for silencing Edens (not for himself even, but for his brother who will suffer a vague, potentially disastrous fate if he doesn’t get the money). So he can either save his own brother, an alcoholic drug addict and black sheep of the Clayton family, or save the thousands of brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers that have lost their lives or livelihoods to U-North. And to make matters worse, there are mountains of confidentiality agreements and non-disclosure forms signed by Clayton that will allow his law firm to feed him to the wolves if he rats out one of their clients. Gilroy’s depiction of the internal and external forces that can impede one’s capacity to do good is where the film really excels, recalling both Michael Mann’s quintessential whistle-blower thriller, The Insider, and Fernando Meirelles’s superb 2005 film, The Constant Gardener.
But while Clayton is practically a model for how to make an efficient thriller, where no scene is expendable and each shot lingers for precisely the right amount of time to maximize suspense and disquietude, sometimes Gilroy’s storytelling is a little too streamlined. He hastily sketches Clayton’s back-story and family life without dwelling long enough to allow these elements to fully resonate. By the film’s end, Clayton is still a mystery to the viewer, though not in the compelling or thoughtful way that Gilroy intends. There’s a difference between enigmatic characters and ones that aren’t fully developed, and Clayton belongs in the latter category.
Nevertheless, the film is quick-witted, thoroughly entertaining, and very well-acted, particularly by Wilkinson who plays one of the most subtle lunatics in film history, and Tilda Swinton in a role so wicked that makes her Narnia villainess look like the Snuggle Bear. So although you probably won’t be thinking very deeply about Michael Clayton an hour or so after seeing it, for the two hours you spend in the theater you’ll be completely immersed in the film’s frigid atmosphere and high-brow tension.
Michael Clayton is currently playing in wide release.
By: David Holmes
Published on: 2007-10-24