A film review by Craig J. Koban




Rank: # 5



2007, R, 119 mins.

Michael Clayton: George Clooney / Gene Clayton: Sean Cullen / Arthur Edens: Tom Wilkinson / Karen Crowder: Tilda Swinton / Marty Bach: Sydney Pollack / Barry Grissom: Michael O'Keefe / Don Jefferies: Ken Howard / Mr. Greer: Denis O'Hare

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy

If you want to see an impeccably modulated and masterfully underplayed performance, then look no further than George Clooney in the wonderfully crafted new legal thriller, MICHAEL CLAYTON.

In the film Clooney erodes away all of that cocky and suave bravado that he exhibited playing Danny Ocean in the OCEANíS TRILOGY - which he also did with amazing tact and skill - and instead settles into a flawed, layered, and more world-weary soul that seems to perpetually walk in and out of a decent zone of morality and ethics.  His portrayal of the title character in CLAYTON demonstrates how charismatic and authoritative Clooney can be when he does so little: A small glance, a twist of the head, a modest movement.  What he does here is deceptively difficult - he crafts a powerful and vigorous persona without engaging in any wild grandstanding and shameless camera mugging.  Itís a pitch perfect example of a less is more approach.

Clooney has given great performances in the past (like the Oscar winning one he gave in SYRIANA from 2005), but he is at his qualified best here playing a lawyer that is unlike all other portrayals of lawyers that I have seen.  He is not a litigator, nor does he work behind a desk as a paper pusher.  Heís the guy that works in the shadows, doing jobs for the firm that would usually be the vocation of hired goons or cigar chewing P.I..  He ostensibly exists at his prestigious New York law firm as a "fixer", or as he refers to himself at one point, a janitor.  He takes care of problems and cleans up messes, the kind that usually donít gain the type of respect that they deserve.  Best of all - and like all people that work under less than prestigious occupations - Clayton is a staunch pragmatist.  Heís not afraid to tell someone to their face when theyíre wrong or completely delusional.  His job does not have time for nonsense.  Heís a time and details man and looks for the most convenient and logical solution to a problem, even when it is not desirable choice for those involved.

MICHAEL CLAYTON works so assuredly and confidently not only because of Clooneyís smoothly intricate and secure performance, but also on a screenplay and direction level.  This films marks the incredible directorial debut of Tony Gilroy, and if his work here is any indication, he has a fine filmmaking career ahead of him.  He has already cut his teeth in Hollywood in the screenwriting arena, carving out scripts for such films as EXTREME MEASURES, PROOF OF LIFE, THE DEVILíS ADVOCATE, and most recently and successfully, the entire JASON BOURNE trilogy.  What he does so fluently in MICHAEL CLAYTON is to craft a neo-1970's political thriller right down to all of the subtle and discrete details: The conflicted characters, the sense of underlining dread and pathos that afflicts them, the ethical uncertainty that permeates the world, and a level of paranoia and moral ambivalence.

Whatís brilliant here is that Gilroy does not allow himself to get bogged down in false sentiment, warmed over characters, and would-be shocking twists in the already labyrinthian plot.  Instead, he allows this thriller to simmer and slowly build, element by element, until we see the grand arc of everything.  He uses a framing device (the story starts somewhat at the end, then flashes back to the beginning, until it arrives once again at the point where the film began at), but it never feels like a cheat.  What this allows for is for audience involvement.  When a thriller is as dense and thick as this one, impatient and petulant viewers need not apply.  I love the fact the Gilroy never races towards an anti-climatic ending, nor does he rush the proceedings to a conclusion.  The end result is so smooth, calculated, and ingeniously engineered.

Michael Clayton (Clooney) works as a self-proclaimed "janitor" and fix-it-man for Kenner, Bach, and Leden, one of the most esteemed law firms in Manhattan.  Heís the guy the can make the impossible possible and the hard to find easily located.  Although he professionally is a lawyer on paper, he really is a cleaner and oftentimes finds himself knee deep in problems that the suits back at the firm canít handle.  The irony of Clayton is that he is incredibly versatile and gifted - not to mention well paid - at what he does, but deep down he resents his work.  The firm sort of carries a foreboding aura of working for the mob and Michael wants out as fast as he can.

The problem is that he canít.  His boss, Marty Bach (played wonderfully by Sydney Pollack, who has the market cornered for playing affluent, high ranking employers that exude chilling and soft spoken toughness), sure canít understand why Michael wants out.  After all, he is talented at what he does, is a highly valuable and rare commodity at the firm, and his very respectably compensated.  In Michaelís mind, matters are quite dire.  He may look like a million bucks and seems like a cool customer, but he really is a shrill and vulnerable man.  He is a chronic gambler and lost 75 grand off of a failed business opportunity, and if he does not cough up the dough to those that want it soon, some harm may befall him.  He has sold just about everything he has in an effort to repay his debt; he even went as far to get rid of his wall fixtures at home.  He does has a nice car, but itís a lease.

He does find some solace in his son, but his relationship with him is semi-estranged (the child lives with his ex-wife) and he does have a few friends and acquaintances.  One of them is friend and fellow fixer, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson, in a performance that beacons for Oscar consideration), but he has gone utterly loony.  How crazy?  Try stripping butt naked during a deposition in Milwaukee and then running into the streets into the freezing snow with nothing on but his socks crazy.

Okay, this guyís a nut job and serious liability to Bach and company, but he has a secret that could cost both the law firm and another company billions.  It seems that he has some valuable information on a gigantic class action lawsuit against one of Kenner, Bach, and Ledenís biggest clients, U/North.  U/North has been willfully holding back information and scientific findings about their product and, as a result, this has lead to the deadly poisoning of people.  But whack-job Arthur wants to blow this leak sky high, which would cost U/North a fortune, not to mention that his firm would loose billions in legal fees.  This possibility really upsets U/North head corporate lawyer Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, who is searing and quietly ruthless here, rounding off CLAYTONíS universally strong quartet of performances), who wants to take immediate steps to stop Arthur.  Meanwhile, Marty gives Michael and ultimatum: clean up this whole mess and contain Marty, or he will be a heap of trouble.

I think that one film critic once stated that only bad films are depressing.  I thought about that while watching MICHAEL CLAYTON, which is a great depressing film.  Sometimes, I find impressively mounted works uplifting as film going experiences even if they are permeated with desolation, uncertainty, and social ambivalence.  Whatís truly great about the film is that it never takes the easy way out.  The central arc of MICHAEL CLAYTON is that of unease and desperation, both on a story and character level.  From a narrative perspective, the story has neither bad or good guys, but people that walk that hard to define gray area.  U/North is clearly guilty as charged for poisoning people, and Claytonís firm and bosses and amoral SOBís in the way that they defend obviously guilty parties to avoid a bad financial windfall.  Like the best dramas of the 70's, CLAYTON is about that divergence between right and wrong, and in the end we still are unsure who really won and who lost.

Then there are the characters, all of whom reveal different levels of despondency.  Thereís Arthur, who despite his lunacy, strives to make U/North pay for their mistakes.  Then there is Arthurís bosses who also desperately try to contain Arthur from spilling the beans.  Karen Crowder goes through an emotional tailspin making frantic and life altering decisions about what she feels is the "appropriate course of action" to muzzle Arthur.  And finally there is Clayton himself, who desperately goes through the biggest crisis of conscience throughout the film.  Does he obey his bosses, keep tabs on Arthur so he does not leak information that could cost his employers billions, and in turn make enough money for his services to pay his debts or does he do the right thing, disobey his bosses, and help Arthur reveal to the world what U/North is really doing?  Letís just say that Clayton never really settles on either choice, but he nevertheless is amazingly able to meet the needs of both options.

MICHAEL CLAYTON creates a tense of harshly honest portrait of gritty urban decay where its moral complexity with its characters, themes, and story are its chief assets.  The film is low key in how it how it ripens and develops its story slowly and patiently, but itís endlessly provocative and compelling for how it shows how one lonely and conflicted man has his entire existence unravel right before him.  It rightfully shows the stark reality of people who willfully defend the indefensible, even when logical and right head impulses burn away at them.  This is one of the best portraits of corporate malfeasance and legal wrongdoing in a long time.  It shows that all the Hollywood trickery at oneís disposal can never substitute for engrossing writing, sure-fire and level headed direction, and a series of powerful and nuanced performances.  MICHAEL CLAYTON is one of 2007's very best films and is an uncommonly intelligent thriller during an age where far too much pyrotechnics, gore and carnage are employed for cheap shock value.

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