There is no shame in appreciating the primarily brainless schlock that Hollywood churns out; but if film is to be viewed as artistic sustenance for the soul, then we must face the fact that most of the films released by Hollywood are the equivalent to candy. That is to say that most films have no real nutritional value. This is the reality of living in a world of PG-13 filmmaking, where movies are meant to be all things to all people, provided those people fall within key demographics. The age and socio-economic breakdown of these demographics are not nearly as important as the fact that they consider candy to be food, and their guiding cinematic mantra is something along the lines of "I don't go to the movies to think." Well, Michael Clayton is not a film for those people.
George Clooney stars as Michael Clayton, a man whose career is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. Although he works for the powerful law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, it isn't all that clear if Clayton is a lawyer or not. In another life he was an idealistic criminal prosecutor, but he traded that position for a more ill-defined career in corporate law. The one thing that is certain, as the film quickly reveals, is that someone wants Clayton dead. After a shocking attempt on his life goes wrong, the story backtracks to four days earlier. Clayton is struggling to cope with a hard financial loss when the restaurant he opened with his unreliable brother goes out of business, leaving him in debt to the sort of people you don't want to be in debt to. The bar was to be Michael's way out of his day job as a "fixer"--someone who finds creative solutions to complex problems--but with the failure of that venture, and the debt behind it, he is stuck in a world of corruption. The latest complex problem facing Clayton involves a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit against U/North, a powerful corporation that may be responsible for hundreds of deaths caused by a product they manufacture. The case hits a snag when Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the attorney for Kenner, Bach & Ledeen that is defending U/North, has a mental breakdown in the middle of a deposition. Clayton is called in to clean up the mess, which is where he crosses paths with Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), U/North's chief litigator, whose ambition as a lawyer is balanced by her insecurity as a woman. Arthur Edens has gone from being U/North's secret weapon in the courtroom, to their biggest liability, and Karen will do anything to stop him, which puts her at odds with Clayton, who wants to help his old friend get through his troubled times.
George Clooney has proven himself to be a capable movie star and shown the promise of being an important director, but until Michael Clayton, his abilities as an actor have seldom been able to outweigh his on-screen charisma (Syriana being the most notable exception). Michael Clayton is arguably Clooney's best performance as an actor, as opposed to as a movie star. The charisma that has carried most of his other work is still present, but it is battered and falling apart at the seams, with Clooney bringing a world-weary resolve to the role. Clayton is The Searchers' Ethan Edwards, Casablanca's Rick Blaine, The Wild Bunch's Deke Thornton rolled into one--equal parts gunslinger and soldier of fortune--worn out by the life he has led, uncertain of how to move forward. This is a man who sold his soul long ago, and is finally beginning to fully understand the toll is has taken on him.
Clooney's performance, for all of its assured grace and depth of character, is overshadowed by Wilkinson, who seems to be possessed by the spirit Howard Beale (Peter Finch's legendary character in Network). Wilkinson is absolutely brilliant as Arthur Edens, who at first seems to be a manic depressive who's stopped taking his meds, but slowly emerges as a man lost for too long in his own moral corruption, desperately looking to redeem himself. Arthur is what Clayton is doomed to become. Meanwhile, on the other end of the moral spectrum is Tilda Swinton, in an equally brilliant performance as Karen Crowder, one of cinema's most unlikely villains. Karen's precarious balance of insecurity and ruthless business drive is profoundly disturbing, as she sets out on a path both Arthur and Clayton embarked on years earlier, quickly transforming herself into a malignant being.
Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton harkens back to another era of filmmaking, and in doing so, almost seems to be 35 years out of place. This is a film that should have been made in 1972 by a director like Sidney Lumet, starring either Warren Beatty or Robert Redford. Instead, we are getting this film in 2007, in an era when well-crafted, intelligent scripts are a rarity, and when long, lingering takes are considered boring by audiences who've grown accustomed to maudlin mediocrity with quick edits. In a desert of crass commercialism that passes itself off as middling filmmaking at best, Michael Clayton is an oasis of cinematic craft and artistry.
Gilroy, who makes his directorial debut with Michael Clayton, is best known for writing the Bourne films. And while those films are the best work on his resume--solid movies to be sure--there was no indication that Gilroy had anything this good in him. As both a writer and director, Gilroy strikes the fine balance of knowing when to talk and when to show. He is careful to not spell out everything to the audience, but instead forces them to think and process some of what they are seeing. He understands that film works best when it is used not only as a visual medium, but a cerebral one as well.
Michael Clayton is more than good filmmaking, it is exceptional filmmaking.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]