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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Michael Clayton
Michael Clayton
Warner Bros. // R // February 19, 2008
List Price: $28.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Phil Bacharach | posted February 6, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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A U D I O
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R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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The Movie:

When Michael Clayton hit theaters in the fall of 2007, film critics largely had the same reaction. Here was the sort of legal thriller, went the conventional wisdom, that John Grisham movies always promise to be but never are: Smart, complex and suspenseful. In this case, the echo chamber of critical opinion was more than justified. Michael Clayton is just about pitch-perfect, an elegantly crafted and riveting nail-biter that makes most other films of its ilk look like Judge Judy reruns.

Not coincidentally, Michael Clayton never so much as sets foot inside a courtroom. The title character, portrayed by George Clooney, is one of the most valuable members of high-powered New York law firm Kenner, Bach & Leeden. But he's not an attorney -- not a practicing one, anyway. Instead, Michael is the firm's allotted fix-it man, a self-described janitor skilled at mopping up the dirty little secrets of wealthy clients and lawyers. From this scenario, writer-director Tony Gilroy fashions a classic hero's journey (Joseph Campbell would be proud) that affords Michael a chance at redemption, even as he seemingly sinks deeper and deeper in a stew of corruption.

Michael's plight parallels that of Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a brilliant attorney for the firm who has spent six years of his professional life -- "six years scheming and stalling and screaming," as he puts it -- in service to a single client, U/North, an ADM-type corporation immersed in a $3 billion class-action lawsuit over deadly pollutants.

Troubles arise when Arthur, who is bipolar, stops taking his meds. In the midst of a deposition in Milwaukee, he strips naked and chases after one of the plaintiffs. Michael is dispatched by the firm's top dog, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), to corral Arthur and get him back on track.

Despite Michael's friendship with Arthur, the mission proves difficult. The attorney insists his meltdown has nothing to do with manic depression and everything to do with an epiphany about defending a company that is guilty and knows it.

As the title indicates, however, this is chiefly Michael Clayton's story. The guy is in dire straits, owing more than $75,000 to some scary people in the wake of a failed restaurant. Muzzling Arthur might be his only way out of debt, especially with Kenner Bach about to enter into a merger that puts his future employment in question. But then the stakes get higher when U/North's workaholic in-house counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), resolves to take matters into her own hands.

If that sounds like I just gave away the entire storyline, fear not. It's just the launching point. Michael Clayton is one of those happy works of mainstream Hollywood in which the disparate elements of filmmaking coalesce magically. Gilroy, a top-tier screenwriter whose credits include the Jason Bourne franchise and The Devil's Advocate, has an astonishingly self-assured directorial debut. He helps himself with a magnificent screenplay rife with ingenious plotting, sharp dialogue and a knack for ratcheting up the tension without sacrificing the nuances.

But Gilroy is inspired throughout. Simple exposition is presented with flourish, and never at the expense of keeping the story moving. Characterization is provided in deft, clear strokes; a smartly edited scene in which Swinton agonizingly rehearses for a puff-piece media interview imparts everything you need to know about Karen's insecurities, misplaced priorities and blackened humanity. Gilroy is ambitious, too. Michael Clayton's first act boasts nonlinear narration that heightens suspense -- even as it confuses half-alert audiences.

For his initial outing, Gilroy has assembled a first-rate cast. Clooney is at the peak of his dramatic powers. While not exactly dialing down his commanding screen presence, Clooney makes Michael Clayton a bit scruffy around the edges, a seen-better-days fixer teetering on the abyss.

But the supporting players are equally outstanding in their juicy roles. As the bipolar attorney whose moral dilemma sparks Michael's conscience, the always-terrific Wilkinson lends a soulfulness and depth to what could easily have been a scenery-chewing performance. And Swinton is his equal as reluctant villainess Karen Crowder.

The sleek look of the film is taken care of by ace cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), who channels the gods of Seventies cinema -- namely Gordon Willis and Owen Roizman -- in darkly exquisite visuals. Michael Clayon does not pretend to offer lofty truths or big social messages. All it wants to do is keep you on the edge of your seat. On that count, it is just about flawless.

The DVD

The Video:

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the print transfer is simply top-notch. The picture boasts rich details, sharp lines and inky blacks. Robert Elswit's incandescent cinematography is captured beautifully.

The Audio:

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track might not be as immersive as one would like, but the sound is crisp and clean. A 2.0 mix is available as well, along with 5.1 mixes in Spanish and French. Optional subtitles are in English, Spanish, French and English for the hearing-impaired.

Extras:

For such a knockout film, the DVD's bonus material is disappointingly slim. A commentary by Tony Gilroy and his brother, Michael Clayton film editor John Gilroy, is lackluster. Tony Gilroy writes scintillating dialogue, but his commentary tends to be of the so-and-so-was-really-a-dream-come-true-to-work-with variety. Clooney is excellent in the flick, but Gilroy ladles it on thick enough to pave roads.

The only other extra are three additional scenes with an aggregate length of five minutes, 34 seconds. Commentary with the Gilroy brothers is optional.

Final Thoughts:

Michael Clayton is superb entertainment -- a brilliantly executed, clear-eyed thriller that hits the bullseye. While the DVD's shortage of extras is disappointing, it doesn't diminish the excitement of this remarkable directorial debut for Tony Gilroy.

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