Tony Gilroy has proven himself to be an excellent writer of screenplays. “Delores Claiborne”, “Proof of Life”, and the three “Bourne” films have showcased his talents. Now, he assumes double duty as writer and director of a legal thriller that never steps foot inside of a courtroom, “Michael Clayton”, a dark, suspenseful film that does not dumb itself down for its audience.
But along with being an engrossing story of corporate greed and corruption, it is a brilliant character study of a man too comfortable with the “deals with the devil” he has made in his life, and the price he has paid personally and emotionally. Either path, thriller or character study, could have stood alone and made a good tale. Combined, they make this movie one of the best of the year.
As I watched this film, I found myself thinking about the growth of George Clooney from his start as a pretty boy actor in such fluff pieces as “One Fine Day” and “The Peacemaker” (and let’s not even talk about the dreadful “Batman and Robin”). It seemed that Clooney thought all he had to do was to show up, look good, and smile for the camera while semi-mechanically repeating his lines.
That person is no longer present. The Clooney that now appears on screen is an actor that can be compared with a Russell Crowe or Christian Bale. At 46, Clooney no longer has to take big budget roles that play off his looks. Yes, he still has the genetic quirks that make women swoon and flock to his lighter fare as Danny Ocean, but he can dirty himself up as well now, as was seen in both “Good Night and Good Luck”, and “Syriana”.
In “Michael Clayton”, he doesn’t so much pudge-up, but rather he lets us see what time and stress can do to someone like him. In the film, Michael Clayton is the “fixer” of a large law firm. He is a former District Attorney who traded his fame for money, but became ensnared by it. Simply put, he is too good at his job. He complains to senior partner Marty Bach (Sidney Pollack) that he’d like to go back to litigation…but Marty won’t allow it. Marty has plenty of lawyers who can argue cases, but no one that can do the things Michael can do.
And those “things” are soliciting favors and offering solutions. He doesn’t seem to do anything illegal, but they probably do skirt dangerously close to unethical, if not crossing them on occasion. Michael knows everyone, is liked by everyone, and can strike a deal with anyone. He has no one at home waiting for him, as his career has already cost him his wife, and is coming close to alienating his nine year old son, since he is “on call” 24 hours a day.
He will need all of his skill and cunning on his latest case, trying to reign back in the chief litigator of the firm’s biggest client, a chemical company defending itself in a billion dollar class action lawsuit that has drug out for six years. The attorney, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has had a breakdown, stripping down in a deposition while raving about the case. It seems Arthur is bipolar, and has been off his medications. The firm expects Michael to take care of his former mentor, and get him cleaned up before the case is lost.
Complicating matters is the lead consul for the chemical company, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). She is concerned about the possible ramifications of Arthur’s mental illness, and is tempted to try any measure in securing the “correct” verdict for her company.
This is a very topical movie, given the perceived state of “corporate over citizen” mentality of Big Business…but it doesn’t get maudlin or preachy, such as “Erin Brockovich” or “A Civil Action”. “The Case” isn’t the point of the movie, it’s just the plot device that keeps things going.
What is the point of the movie is watching Michael wrestle with his inner demons and his conscious. He cares deeply for Arthur, as he does for his son, but he has other strains on his life, mostly financial due to a business venture going bad due to the drug problems of his brother, who was his business partner as well. He is not the typical type of avenger you normally see in these types of films, charging in on his white horse wearing his white hat. He has a very vague sense of ethics, and as you watch him, you never can tell for certain how he is going to react.
With this type of film, you can not make it work without extraordinary casting, and Gilroy has hit the jackpot. Tom Wilkinson is one of those types of chameleon character actors that you always recognize and appreciate in smaller roles. This is his best performance since his Oscar nominated turn as the grieving father in 2001’s “In the Bedroom”. Arthur may be mad, but he is still the best legal mind in New York, especially concerning laws regarding involuntary commitment. Or is he mad? Or just fed up with spending years defending the indefensible? Wilkinson gives a powerful performance that doesn’t once slip into stereotypical “nut case” histrionics.
Tilda Swinton continues her unusual and enigmatic career with another completely original role. Although she has taken on a few more “commercial” projects in recent years, such as the White Witch in “The Chronicles of Narnia” and Gabriel in “Constantine”, she still brings an exotic and off-beat flair to any role she plays. That was a needed touch for this film, as the role of Karen is one that would have been difficult for most of Swinton’s contemporaries to play, as there is not really that much to work with. Karen is power-hungry, ethically bankrupt, and completely in over her head. Even so, Swinton can bring out the humanity and conflict in her as well as the faults.
But this is George Clooney’s film to make or break, and the former “ER” hunk makes it in spades. Michael may dress in two thousand dollar suits and drive a top-of-the-line Mercedes, but Clooney shows a man who is losing it, and doesn’t have a clue how to bring it back. Disheveled, distracted and desperate, Michael must nonetheless pull himself together. Throughout the film, you are looking at a character who is standing on the abyss, knowing what the right path should be, but unsure of his ability to go there. Clooney truly stands out in this subtle, affecting performance that will surely be mentioned at awards season.
In all, Gilroy has succeeded in creating something we need to see more of; films where the characters actually have to deal with the same forces as we normal people do. Career, and its affect on family and self; morality played out in something other than black or white; debt and financial concerns as underlying factors as to where we draw that moral line in the sand; obligation to one’s self and to others.
There are no cheap, shocking twists or out-of-left field jaw-dropping surprises in this film…which is another reason why it is so great. The suspense is real, but not just in terms of threats of violence (and there are a few of those), but in wanting to see how someone chooses their ethical boundaries. It is a cautionary tale of the price people pay for their ambitions…and it is one of the best films of the year.
My Rating: Bernie Kosar (4 footballs).
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