Saturday, October 6, 2007
The Package That You Have Before You
MICHAEL CLAYTON is an act of defiance, a shockingly good example of the sort of movie that doesn’t get made anymore, at least not by major studios. It’s a truly adult thriller and consistently gripping. Like SYRIANA, also with George Clooney, it’s very densely plotted but unlike the earlier film, it never feels impenetrable. The movie drops you in at a place designed to not fill you in right away and you have to work at it, but the ultimate effect it gives off is extremely satisfying. It’s the directorial debut by screenwriter Tony Gilroy of the BOURNE films, along with DOLORES CLAIBORNE and DEVIL’S ADVOCATE. He wrote this one too and it feels like a writer’s movie. You can tell how much the words matter, how much the inflections matter.
Clooney of course plays Michael Clayton, a “fixer” for a prominent Manhattan law firm that is involved in a multi-billion dollar lawsuit defending the agrochemical company U/North that has manufactured what we are told is a “deadly weed killer”. When the chief litigator (Tom Wilkinson) goes berserk at a deposition, stripping off his clothes, Clayton is faced with having to deal with the fallout of a brilliant lawyer who has possibly gone insane and, out of some form of guilt, is intent on sabotaging the case. Caught between a massive debt and his own feelings of self-hatred for the job that he’s found himself in for the past 17 years, Clayton begins to question once and for all what kind of person he’s become.
The lawsuit with U/North is a key point in the plot, but the movie isn’t “about” the case, not in an ERIN BROCKOVICH sort of way, anyway. The sad thing is that the world CLAYTON is set in seems to accept this as the normal way of doing things. A corrupt corporation is really nothing to get excited about. In the best possible way the film takes the paranoia of the best seventies thrillers and updates it for the aughts, not in homage, but in a way that is more biting than any film released by a major studio for a long time. Without ever eluding to certain things that are going on in our daily life, it becomes very clear how much this film takes place in 2007 and everything that fact carries with it. Just a few days ago I caught Jack Cafferty on TV bemoaning how he feels that the world he’s leaving his children and grandchildren might not be better than the world he grew up in, the opposite of what’s been known for generations. MICHAEL CLAYTON is about this despair for the world and it truly stings.
Clooney is the true anchor, with some of the best material he’s ever had to play. It wouldn’t surprise me if, years from now when we’re looking back on how Clooney turned into the Paul Newman of the 21st Century MICHAEL CLAYTON will be looked at as a peak for him—a peak of his talent, a peak of his movie-star screen power and a peak at him being able to help get a film like this made. Wilkinson, in full-on Peter Finch/Howard Beale mode, is near-brilliant, managing to keep us on edge as to exactly how insane, or possibly sane, his character is. Also impressive in quieter roles are Sydney Pollack, Michael O’Keefe and especially Tilda Swinton, bringing some amazingly unexpected shadings to an already well-written character. I’m going to have to go into greater detail about her work here at a later date, but for now I won’t give away details. Also making an impression in a smaller role is the excellent Merritt Wever, familiar from STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP.
I might have one or two small issues, but they’re so tiny that they are barely worth discussing and by the end they didn’t even really bother me. When the end does come, it’s on a beat that is much like an exhalation and Gilroy holds it in a terrific final shot that continues into the credits, giving us a chance to correctly absorb what we’ve just seen. Going into the theater, I realized that I was feeling kind of worn out by certain events of the past week and was wondering if it was the right choice to be seeing what I figured would be a very adult, “talky” film when I was in that state. Several hours later I emerged feeling newly invigorated, like I’d just gotten a shot of adrenaline. Sometimes the best films can do that to you, the ones that hit you down in your soul and make you want to take control of the world, to make it better. And to maybe get a law passed which requires studios to try, just try a little, to make more movies like MICHAEL CLAYTON.