Michael Clayton

****

Reviewed by: The Exile

Michael Clayton
"Swinton’s magnificent juggling of callousness and vulnerability is the single best female performance I’ve seen all year."

Few things are more amusing than when that bastion of capitalism, the Hollywood movie studio, puts its weight behind a staunchly anti-capitalist story like Michael Clayton. But that’s the beauty and the beast of capitalism: it can make money from our outrage, from the teeth marks we leave in its outstretched palm. Provided we accept that, then films like Michael Clayton can be savoured as the industry product they are rather than examples of social-conscience filmmaking. If you want conscience, you’ll have to bring your own.

Adult in a sense that has almost disappeared in American filmmaking, Michael Clayton sets up a complicated environmental lawsuit and supplies only the barest of details. Nothing is spelled out and few relationships are clarified, and this murkiness adds a depth that may be nothing but sleight of hand. It also allows a fairly conventional, John Grisham-esque tale to hide beneath an armature of hints and suggestions, shadows and fog, relying on the powerhouse cast to help us figure things out.

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Closer in tone to A Civil Action than Erin Brockovich (whose director, Steven Soderbergh, executive-produced), Michael Clayton swirls around a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against an agrichemical corporation called U/North. Michael himself (George Clooney) works for the defendant’s law firm but is not initially involved in the case. He’s a “fixer,” someone who cleans up messes and greases dubious palms, and he operates outside the lines. A recovering gambler with an ex-wife and a young son, Michael seems to have made his peace with the questionable ethics of his job and the grey areas in which it resides.

Then his friend and mentor, Arthur (a brilliant Tom Wilkinson) - the senior litigating partner defending U/North - snaps in the middle of a deposition and appears to have switched sides. Dispatched by his boss (a perfect Sydney Pollack) to rescue the situation, Michael finds the bipolar Arthur off his medication and babbling about helping the plaintiffs. But as Michael delves deeper into Arthur’s claims and the U/North case, he discovers that backing out is not an option - from his job or his life.

These days, much value is placed on actors who can “carry” a movie, but their ranks are surprisingly thin. Current performances by Russell Crowe in 3:10 To Yuma, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the upcoming Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, show just how mercurial and indefinable that quality can be. But George Clooney has it in spades, and Michael Clayton exploits it by casting him as everyone’s saviour. Everyone’s but his own, that is; whether using his retirement savings to pay off debts for his druggie brother, keeping his old friend out of the asylum or saving his firm’s reputation, Michael rarely has time to think about his own needs. Slowly, however, he’s coming to the realisation that he needs to fix himself.

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy (who had a hand in the screenplays for all three Bourne films), Michael Clayton’s dark tone and deliberate pacing owe more to the 1970s procedurals of Sidney Lumet and Alan J Pakula than today’s frenetic thrillers. The film’s opening, which plays Arthur’s frantic gibberish over the calm, sleek images of empty law offices, creates a dual atmosphere of chaos and control. This motif is continued, not only in Michael’s own conflicted psyche, but in that of U/North’s fragile corporate lawyer, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). Newly promoted and desperate to prove herself in a man’s world, Karen hides her terror beneath a monstrous armor of business suits and old-lady underwear. Swinton’s magnificent juggling of callousness and vulnerability is the single best female performance I’ve seen all year.

Playing with time as well as our sympathies, Michael Clayton offers a grim and mesmerising portrait of a man forced to face the truth about who and what he is. “I’m just a janitor,” he says early in the film. Don’t believe him.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2007
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A lawyer forced to clean up after a colleague's breakdown begins to question the ethics of his job.
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Read more Michael Clayton reviews:

Stephen Carty ****1/2
Chris ****

Director: Tony Gilroy

Writer: Tony Gilroy

Starring: George Clooney, Sean Cullen, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Michael O'Keefe, Ken Howard, Denis O'Hare, Robert Prescott, Austin Williams, Merritt Wever

Year: 2007

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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If you like this, try:

A Civil Action
Erin Brockovich