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Michael Clayton (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 05 October 2007
“Michael Clayton” is a solid, largely engrossing drama in a category Hollywood seems to do (and do well) every few years: the story of the man who learns better. “Jerry Maguire” was a good example of the subgenre a few years ago, and “Michael Clayton” is as honest and straightforward as that film was, if rather less flamboyant. George Clooney is superb in the title role—but he’s so good so often that he runs the risk of being taken for granted. We shouldn’t overlook his ability to express his characters’ anguish and torment—but does this with so few gestures, so few changes of expression that he doesn’t even seem to be acting—he’s simply being. But that’s one of the hardest things for an actor to achieve, partly because at its best and most convincing (as here), we cannot see the actor’s choices or the planning that underlies the performance.

This is the first movie as director by screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who’s had a checkered career as a writer. He wrote “Dolores Claiborne” and all three “Bourne” movies, but he also worked on “Armageddon” and “Proof of Life,” not feathers in anyone’s cap. With “Michael Clayton,” which he also wrote, he’s clearly determined to tell his story with care and attention to craft, but he never gets in the way of his script. He’s so earnest about being unsensational, realistic and low-key that the movie, on at least some levels, sometimes doesn’t catch fire dramatically, even while Clooney and others is giving an outstanding performance. Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton are also very good; he’s a man almost driven crazy by the work he’s done for decades, she suffers pangs of guilt and shame over what she feels her job forces her to do, but she’s cold enough to subdue her doubts. Understatement is rare in Hollywood movies, so it seems a bit churlish to express some reservations when it’s employed as carefully as it is here. But it would also be an error not to express a few reservations about the dramatic power of the film.

Michael Clayton is a lawyer working for a huge New York firm headed by Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack, also very good—but as an actor, he’s always good), whose principal assistant, Barry Grissom (Michael O’Keefe) has little affection for Clayton; there’s clearly long-time bad blood between them, even though they never even raise their voices in the few encounters we see. Clayton comes from a family of cops—his brother Gene (Sean Cullen) still works for the NYPD—and began as a prosecutor. But big bucks and the prestige of working for a huge firm has pulled him into the legal battlefields. He’s somewhat alienated from Gene, and has been divorced for a while.
Michael doesn’t work as a courtroom attorney, but behind the scenes, skillful at tasks that cloud his self-respect. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior partner at the firm, is fond of Clayton, but that doesn’t stop him from saying “You’re a bag man, not an attorney.” The movie opens with a brisk scene of Clayton leaving a high-stakes poker game only to be called away by Marty, assigned to help a wealthy client (his garage has five expensive cars) who just ran into someone with one of those cars, then fled the scene. Clayton is calm and measured as he points out the necessary steps, leaving the man early in the morning to return to the City. But he stops, caught by the peaceful sight of three horses atop a nearby hill. He leaves his car and approaches the horses—then sees his car explode into a ball of flames behind him.

Four Days Earlier, a title card tells us: Clayton is sent to the Midwest. The firm has been working for six years on behalf of a huge biochemical company, fighting a class-action lawsuit regarding deaths due to a weed killer the company sells. We also meet Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the head of the company’s internal legal department, and Don Jefferies (Ken Howard), the company’s president. There’s a problem: while taking a deposition, Arthur takes off his clothes and, in a scene we don’t witness, approaches Anna (Merritt Wever), one of the people filing the lawsuit. Michael and Arthur are longtime friends; Michael knows that Arthur’s had mental problems before, but has stopped taking the pills that kept his derangement at bay. Arthur has come by information that proves conclusively that the biochemical company is completely in the wrong; years of successfully defending such clients has finally led Arthur to snap. But this time, there’s an extra element to Arthur’s intelligent insanity, and Michael has a hard time reaching him.

Clayton himself is in deep financial trouble. He seems to be a very wealthy man, but he invested far too much money in a restaurant run by himself and his younger brother Timmy (David Lansbury), and now he owes more money than he can repay. By his usual standards, it’s not a lot of money—but Michael is broke. He’s divorced, but tries to sustain a warm relationship with his young son Henry (Austin Williams)—who, unexpectedly (but imaginatively) has a late-night phone conversation with a shaken, frightened Arthur. The scene could have been comic—a ten-year-old boy having a serious conversation with a middle-aged man, who’s lying in bed, trembling with the power of his renewed morality—but instead, thanks to the strength of Wilkinson’s performance, it’s touching and involving.

Michael Clayton is under a lot of pressure, from without and from within. He isn’t happy in his job, but Marty won’t give him the kind of work Michael would prefer, and is dismissive—and slightly contemptuous—of Michael’s appeal for money. Marty is a successful man, evidently never troubled by the idea that sometimes his firm has taken on clients whose cases deserve to be lost. Just life as he lives it has become hard on Michael, but it’s going to get worse: knowing that Arthur has an all-important internal memo that proves her company is bloody well guilty of the event underlying the lawsuit, Karen Crowder has begun to take desperate steps—final steps. She’s shaken by the decisions she must make, but she’s too strongly linked to her company for her to refrain from giving those deadly orders.

“Michael Clayton” is quietly suspenseful. The gimmicky idea of starting the story, then flashing back four days, actually works very well. The exploding car seems completely out of place in the cool, wintry images the film has presented to that point. But the flashback gradually reveals what happened before that led to the car bomb; after the story catches up with itself, the movie smoothly continues on. The pace is so carefully crafted but so measured the movie runs the risk of losing the attention of the audience, but it’s recaptured again and again, primarily through a handful of confrontations between Arthur and Michael. These scenes sing and sting; Wilkinson and Clooney are both working at the top of their form, and you just can’t look away. It’s a clash of two strong wills; Arthur may be nuts, but he’s still a brilliant attorney, and Michael can’t get around that.

The movie’s menaces are subtle. The man (Bill Raymond) demanding money from Michael isn’t a tough gang member; he’s not a slick, Armani-clad witty tyrant, he’s a low-key, falsely earnest businessman who claims to be Michael’s friend—but we know there’s a threat behind him. One of a pair of men we never really know feels the pulse of the victim of him and his partner; when the pulse stops, he murmurs “we’re good” and leaves. This is murder on the corporate level; no gunshots, no car chases, no real violence—just an injection where it won’t be noticed, an alert but unexcited moment of observation, and a troublesome man is gone.

Warners is showing a good deal of courage this summer—“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is another careful, largely quiet film that, in its case, works nearly perfectly; it’s the best film of the year so far. “Michael Clayton” isn’t quite in that league, but in its refusal to target the biggest moviegoing demographic (boys 14-20), it’s as intelligent and adult as that Western drama. The movie includes a murder scene so clinical, so quiet and efficient, that it’s more blood-curdling than a beheading.

Every now and then, an American movie takes on the world of big business, where everyone is so polite, so civilized, and so monstrously avaricious, but usually these are fueled by so much irony they teeter on the brink of comedy, like “Wall Street.” But “Michael Clayton” isn’t a satire, and it isn’t comic. But it also isn’t an Issue Movie (the corporate secret at the heart of things could have been anything serious), and it isn’t based on a novel. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay is very good; his direction is, if anything, a little too cautious, but he makes an impressive directorial debut nonetheless. And any movie with performances as good as these, from top to bottom, will always be one of the best movies of its year.

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