Friday, February 6, 2009
It's a testament to Tony Gilroy's writing that he manages to pull Michael Clayton above the clouds despite some questionable choices he makes behind the camera. Gilroy, who got his start in Hollywood writing scripts for The Devil's Advocate and Armageddon, eventually exhibited some actual talent with the Bourne trilogy. The success of those films granted him a bit of clout in town, and he poured it into this effort, his directorial debut.
Nominally a legal thriller, Michael Clayton follows its titular hero, a "fixer" for a prestigious law firm. When clients get into serious trouble that needs to be cleaned up outside of the courtroom, they call Michael. We first meet him as he deals with a client who just got into a hit and run. Something's clearly on his mind, and he pierces through the man's self-righteous indignation with direct advice on how to proceed. After he leaves, Michael drives around the countryside before stopping to admire some horses. Then his car explodes, and we flashback 4 days.
This sort of structure could have ruined the "thriller" aspect of the film--and I maintain it certainly hurts it--but Gilroy crafts such a complex and unexpected picture that I never dwell on this early misfire. If I might slip into my pretentious apologist mode for a moment, perhaps it's Gilroy's way of informing us that the thrills are secondary to the character study he sets up. That character study ultimately sets the film apart from easy classification, and it's what makes it entertaining.
You see, Michael has a lot on his plate: he tries to connect with his son when he has custody, deals with debts incurred when an investment fell through and finds himself just generally questioning his line of work. This questioning gets compounded when he must contend with the mental breakdown of his friend Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), one of the firm's most skilled lawyers. It's his manic voice we hear at the very start of the film, and we soon learn that he's a manic-depressive who stopped taking his medication. The resultant state of mania came with a sort of twisted epiphany concerning the disgusting implications of his job. Though Michael thinks his friend is crazy--and he's not wrong--Arthur's ramblings stir his own feelings of worthlessness.
Meanwhile, a major client of the firm, U-North, also has to deal with Arthur's breakdown, as he was their representative and he went mad in a crucial deposition. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), U-North's general counsel, speaks with fixers of her own to deal with the problem to protect dark secrets from coming to light. She sends the story into numerous twists and turns as the scope broadens from Michael's personal drama to introduce her arc. Swinton plays Crowder as a woman on the edge of a breakdown of her own as Arthur gets closer and closer to pulling skeletons out of closets, and you might pity her if Gilroy didn't make sure we were firmly against the company (that's not a slight against him, mind you, just the way he structured it).
It's hard to talk about the movie without becoming endlessly entangled with spoilers, as a number of stories pop up and get solved that aid the overall narrative. Critics praised its originality for being a legal thriller that never set foot in a courtroom, but I think of it as a melodrama and a character study that just happens to have some thrills in it. Yet most of those thrills manage to further the character drama; they're not in there just to wake up the audience. It's some hard work to get right, but Gilroy lucked out with his incredible cast. Wilkinson and Swinton put in terrific character work, and both earned their Oscar nominations. We also get a great little role from Sydney Pollack, in one of his final roles.
But the real star is, of course, its lead. Clooney is one of the most underrated actors working today, and I think he's a master character actor. Clooney has a lot of emotional weight to shoulder, but he carries it wonderfully. Even if the film is, at its heart, a melodrama, Clooney never hams it up and even stays professional when he loses the cool near the end. The man is usually at his best when carves out some niche comic character (think his work with the Coens), but his performance here is understated and effective. I wish more people took him seriously.
Michael Clayton doesn't exactly bust down doors and wave its middle finger at established genres, but it does carve out a little niche for itself on the border of drama and thriller that makes it a different and rewarding experience. I'm not as ecstatic about the film as I used to be, but I still think it was one of the best films of a year that overflowed with quality. If for no other reason, see it for the killer performances, but you might also find yourself hooked by Gilroy's inventive and engaging script.