Michael Clayton is a thriller devoid of surprises but still crammed with tension. Writer-director Tony Gilroy, who also scripted the Bourne films and the considerably less watchable Armageddon, is fantastic in his first turn as director in mining every bit of his story for emotional nuance and turning what could have been a boilerplate legal drama into a compelling story about frailty, greed, and what it means to realize too late that you’ve gone too far down a dark, bad road. Perhaps the best script from Gilroy’s past that hinted at this kind of story would be his screenplay for The Devil’s Advocate, a cheesy film directed by Taylor Hackford that imagined the devil himself as the head of a law firm. The script wasn’t exactly subtle, but Gilroy’s point was that every organization has on some level been compromised by baser human desires, and his screenplay was a melodramatic representation of the extreme incarnation of that thesis. That’s what’s so gripping about Michael Clayton: Gilroy never pretends for a minute to forge a whodunit from his story, acknowledging up front that the giant law firm is crooked, that their client is covering up a deadly secret, and that this is just the way things are. However, Gilroy’s advanced approach to deconstructing the legal thriller — the revelation of the firm’s implicit corruptibility is the basis of the story, not the summation of it — winds up hindering the film’s efficacy to a certain degree. That’s not to say it’s a bad film; just the opposite. The film is beautifully composed, and Gilroy chews on prose the way few writers do. But Michael Clayton is also a cold film, one to be admired and respected, but never held, and certainly not loved. Michael Clayton is technically accomplished, anchored by another solid performance from George Clooney, but it’s also unequivocally bleak in its portrayal of the soiled human condition. Everyone here is tainted, ruined, and resigned to their damnation.
The film opens with a voice-over: Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior litigator at Kenner Bach & Ledeen, is explaining to his colleague, Michael Clayton (Clooney), that he’s come to an existential realization of the terrible nature of what the firm is and does and just what it means that he, Arthur, has been a part of the firm’s financial rise and moral decline over the past couple decades. But this narration is laid over scenes of the firm’s lawyers frantically working late at night to close a case, which gives way to Michael sitting at a poker table in what appears to be a kind of warehouse/drug den in the basement of a Chinese restaurant. The chronology of Arthur’s epiphany isn’t immediately clear; whether it’s already happened or whether it’s about to or whether it’s a long way off yet is still up in the air. Gilroy has a habit of simply throwing the viewer into the scene, letting relationships and personalities develop from dialogue and body language, and he does the same kind of thing with the opening sequence, which also includes an incongruous shot of Tilda Swinton sitting in a public bathroom and sweating profusely that won’t make contextual sense until the final act. Gilroy only slowly brings things into focus, his manner of gradually informing the audience mirroring Michael’s upcoming descent into greater realization of just what’s been happening in his life.
After the poker game, Michael gets a late-night call saying one of the firm’s clients needs some help with a hit-and-run, so Michael heads from New York up to Westchester to try and fix things. That’s what Michael is: a fixer, the man who does whatever he needs to do to get done what needs to be done, whether it’s squeezing a D.A. to loosen up on a client or calling in favors from the police. The Westchester client prissily says he expects a miracle worker, but Michael plainly says, “I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor.” If he’d brushed off the attempted compliment, or at least acknowledged it, Michael would be a whole different breed of man, someone arrogant and cocksure. But there’s something almost dejected in the way Michael simply says he just shuttles around cleaning up messes, as if he still can’t quite believe this is where his life has ended up, and Clooney conveys all of this with nothing more than the soft gravelly rasp of his voice and the way his face can seem to fold in on itself in moments of remorse and regret. He barely smiles the entire movie; he’s too busy trying to come to grips with who he is.
The problem that Michael spends the film trying to fix is the mental breakdown of Arthur, who strips down to his underwear in the middle of a deposition in Milwaukee and begins to profess his love for one the plaintiffs. Arthur is the one that’s been overseeing the firm’s representation of UNorth, a chemical company being sued by dozens of Midwestern families who claim the conglomerate’s weed-killer compound wound up harming the farmland and poisoning those who came in contact with it. Gilroy’s not stupid enough to attempt to mine something new out of corporate-level eco-terroristic greed; he lays out up front that the firm is crooked, and their client is guilty. In the absence of any viewer-directed tension, Gilroy instead relies on the character interactions and a vague sense of inevitability to carry things through, and this mostly succeeds. But ultimately the film feels episodic and remote, consisting of a series of sequences that are often interdependent but never catching, and all of it two or three layers removed from fully engaging the viewer.
For instance, Arthur flees Milwaukee without Michael, who must then return to New York and attempt to track him down — again — while dealing with an impatient boss (Sydney Pollack) and growing friction with UNorth’s in-house legal counsel, Karen Crowder (Swinton). For a purportedly world-class fixer, Michael seems pretty out of it, both unable to clean up Arthur’s mess and unwilling to cooperate with his own client’s lawyer. Part of this is deliberate on Gilroy’s part: Michael is the hero of the piece by virtue of being the least corrupt, so his reluctance to sell out his old friend and his stubbornness in the face of corporate change are almost good character traits. But too often the film feels as wandering as its protagonist, sliding from scene to scene without much drive but loads of style. Gilroy also packs in a subplot about Michael’s desire to get out of his line of work and open up a restaurant with a brother, though the rough financing has put the water right at his head. Plus there’s Michael’s other brother, Gene (Sean Cullen), a cop whose favors are among the many Michael calls in, and Michael’s son (Austin Williams), and an ex floating around somewhere.
It’s the fantastic cast that actually keeps the entire production afloat, with Clooney leading the pack in a subdued, almost depressed role that has him blend into the background and become unglamorous and stone-faced. Wilkinson and Swinton are amazing, as well. Swinton is cold-blooded but still maintains a shred of humanity that keeps her conflicted about it, and she swings from steely composure to sweaty anxiety with eerie speed. She and Clooney only share a few scenes, but their confrontation at the end is one of the few conversations in the film that jumps with life and humor and rage and the entire terrible range of human emotion. The scene crackled with an energy often lacking from the rest of the film, and it was a reminder of just how aloof the film had managed to be: It’s tough to care for or about the people on screen when they aren’t given enough depth to become real people. It’s a shame Gilroy couldn’t find a way to work more characterization, and not just caricatures, into the script. Wilkinson is fantastic, too, breathing fire and managing to be both believably unhinged and also pathetic for being so washed up. He’s the only one trying to expose the truth about what he knows, and that makes him the film’s biggest sucker.
Early on, as Michael is driving up to Westchester, the GPS in his Mercedes gives out for a moment or two, and though there’s an in-story explanation later given for the glitch, Gilroy’s point is thuddingly clear: Michael doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s getting there in style. And yet he winds up almost exactly where he started. At one point toward the end, he hails a cab, hands the driver a bill and says, “Give me $50 worth. Just drive.” And he sits there, still going nowhere, but resting easier now that someone else is at the wheel.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Beautiful Sorta
Film | October 12, 2007 | Comments ()