The opening minutes of Michael Clayton are pretty amazing. We see a variety of shots inside an empty law firm: desks, windows, fluorescent lights, a mail guy wandering through after hours. On the surface, these things seem pretty banal, yet the way they’re photographed and combined with music and a voiceover makes them feel positively eerie. Right off the bat, you get the sense that this particular law office is fundamentally alive - a place where life and death can literally be determined. Within those first few moments, I was completely hooked by Michael Clayton, and my investment in it didn’t let up for a single second of its two hour running time. I’ve seen a lot of legal dramas over the years; this is one of the best (if not the best) of them.
George Clooney stars as Clayton, a “fixer” for the high-priced New York law firm of Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen. His job is to take potential public relations nightmares involving the firm’s lawyers or clients and make them disappear. When, for example, one of the firm’s biggest clients is involved in a hit-and-run, Clayton shows up to make the situation go away with a minimum of legal discomfort for the guilty party. As he eloquently puts it, “I’m not a miracle worker; I’m a janitor.”
The biggest challenge of his career comes as the firm is about to represent a company called U/North, which is facing a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit. Kenner Bach’s lead attorney, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), suffers a psychotic breakdown during a deposition, removing his clothing and chasing the plaintiffs across a snow-covered parking lot. Senior partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) sends Clayton in to get control of Arthur and soothe the worries of U/North’s in-house litigator Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). Despite his assurances that Arthur is manic-depressive and will be okay once he’s back on his medications, Crowder is not convinced that things will be fine. Her company stands to lose a lot of money – as well as face some insanely bad press – if they don’t win the case. U/North’s CEO, Don Jeffries (Ken Howard), orders Crowder to do whatever she can to contain the situation if Clayton can’t.
Without giving anything away, Clayton finds Arthur, who initially seems to do a lot of incoherent rambling. (“I am Shiva, the god of Death,” he says.) But then he starts to wonder what drove Arthur to go off the deep end at this particular time. Upon investigation, he discovers something that changes the shape and scope of the case and could potentially affect the lives of everyone involved.
Michael Clayton is undoubtedly a great thriller. It has several unexpected twists and turns of the plot that, to its credit, are always plausible. Many legal thrillers (even good ones) tend to amp up the intrigue to an almost fantasy level. Although it utilizes some of the same dramatic elements, Clayton grounds them in reality, never overdoing the things that add tension or suspense. It’s not hard to believe that things could go down in real life as they do in this story. I was particularly fascinated with the character of Karen Crowder who, in her own way, is just as desperate as Clayton. This desperation causes her to make a choice not even she can believe she makes. There are no scenes overtly dealing with it, but the superb performance of Tilda Swinton sells what the character does in an authentic manner.
While the picture works on the level of a legal thriller, it works even more powerfully as a character study. Michael Clayton’s job may be to fix the problems of other people, but it’s his own life that could use the work. He’s divorced and has a contentious relationship with his ex-wife. His young son gripes that they don’t do enough fun things together. His brother is a junkie, and he lost a ton of cash in a failed attempt to open a restaurant after trusting said junkie brother just a bit too much. He’s also got a gambling addiction. Cleaning up the messes of other people is easy; cleaning up his own is harder. Michael fumbles over what to do. When his own personal life intersects with the professional ramifications of the U/North case, he realizes that no mess will ever be as important as this one.
It is the combination of legal thriller and character study that puts Michael Clayton several steps above 99% of other films in this genre. It is not a movie about who will win or lose the big case. Instead, it’s about, as the title suggests, the central character. Over the course of the story, Clayton has to decide what it really means to “fix” something. Does it mean to do what is ordered by his boss, or to do what his soul tells him is right?
Although he deservedly won as Oscar for Syriana, I think this is a signature role for George Clooney. In recent years, the actor has devoted himself to making the kinds of smart, challenging films that he himself would want to go see. With Michael Clayton, he has found a project that uses all of his abilities – the fierce intelligence, the ingratiating charm, the straightforward seriousness - to maximum effect. He’s nothing short of brilliant in this movie.
The film’s final shot is as powerful as its opening montage. It’s an unbroken close-up of Clooney that lasts for several minutes, with no dialogue. The scene is intended to allow us to study Clayton after all the story’s events have transpired. He is a changed man in this moment, but in other ways he hasn’t changed at all. He’s got a job to do, same as always. But in that last shot, Clooney makes us perfectly aware of what the character thinks on every single level. We know how he feels about the job he’s done and the choices he has made. We know how the repercussions of the situation have affected him and how his life might proceed from here. None of it needs to be said; Clooney relates it all just by allowing us to watch his face. It’s a virtuoso piece of acting in a virtuoso screenplay by Tony Gilroy, who also makes an astonishing directorial debut.
Do not miss this movie.
( out of four)
Michael Clayton is presented on DVD in both widescreen and fullscreen formats. It is also available on Blu-Ray, and the HD-DVD version will be released on March 11.
Special features include an audio commentary from writer/director Tony Gilroy and his brother, editor John Gilroy. The siblings have a strong chemistry and speak very articulately about the movie. Six minutes of deleted scenes are also on the disc. One of them fleshes out the title character’s romantic relationship. You can watch the deleted scenes with or without the Gilroy’s commentary. I watched them both ways, and found the experience very informative.
The film holds up extremely well on second viewing, even after you know where all the twists and turns are heading. Seeing Michael Clayton a second time just confirmed my belief that this is one of the best legal thrillers ever.
Michael Clayton is rated R for language including some sexual dialogue. The running time is 2 hours.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Michael Clayton
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