The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 17, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Michael Clayton

Full review behind the jump

Michael Clayton

: Tony Gilroy
: Tony Gilroy
: Sydney Pollack, Steve Samuels, Jennifer Fox, Kerry Orent
: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack, Tilda Swinton, Austin Williams, Robert Prescott, Terry Serpico, Michael O’Keefe, Merritt Wever

I know what’s different about George Clooney in
Michael Clayton – it’s the uncertainty. It’s that hitch in his body carriage, that way he seems to be looking around people instead of at them, searching for an entry point and not confident he’ll find it in time. This is not the cool Hollywood sex symbol cloned from the DNA of Clark Gable and half of the Rat Pack. This man on screen is a man who knows things don’t always go his way, a born-again cynic who has trusted unworthy people, including himself; a middle-aged man who’s starting to wonder what his life has amounted to when all the tradeoffs are balanced.

This movie doesn’t just feature Clooney’s best performance to date, it features one hell of a script by Tony Gilroy, the writer most known for his adaptations of the
Bourne trilogy. Not every writer can make the transition to writer-director, even a writer like Gilroy, who is gifted enough to engineer golden storytelling moments like the one where Michael Clayton holds one document in each of his hands, and no one around him understands the choice they represent except him – a life-changing moment, invisible in plain sight. It takes not just a writer, but a filmmaker, to sell a scene near the beginning, where Michael Clayton comes across a field of horses on a gray foggy dawn, and approaches them mesmerized, with dreamlike trepidation.

Why do those horses matter to him right at this moment? Gilroy the writer will help us understand why in the emotional narrative of this most smart and gripping thriller; but Gilroy, in a surpassing debut behind the camera, accomplishes the more subtle task as a director – he makes us
believe that moment’s power, right down to the morning chill.

Clayton is a figure of almost mythical contradiction – you must be important to meet him, but you never want to. When he, the fixer-without-portfolio at a high-powered law firm, shows up at your door, it means the mess you’re in is beyond normal manipulation. He is the middleman who appears in the middle of rocks and hard places; his job is no more or less than to work the phones, call in favors, bend the law as far as possible without breaking, and patiently guide people who are used to buying their way out of reality to their least worst option. He is all but insulted when anyone treats him as something more than the scum he sees himself as.

So naturally it is he who gets the late night phone call when Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a partner in his firm, has a manic episode and strips down naked in the middle of a videotaped deposition. Edens is the point man defending a conglomerate that has poisoned a lot of people in a multi-billion dollar lawsuit, and he has made his firm millions by devoting every waking hour to it for six years – shifting venues, filing motions, blunting the hopes of the wronged with aficionado skill. In the process he’s learned every secret of the company he represents – even the ones they didn’t intend him to know. And as the plot unfolds we watch as Michael must navigate his way around to the idea that while Arthur Edens is dangerously unstable – off his meds, with a missionary zeal in his eyes and an over-clocked brain seeing connections everywhere – he is maybe, just maybe, not completely crazy.

In high school I had an economics teacher who once promised me that anyone who has the power over a great deal of money will eventually put a dollar value on the life of a human being. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is the chief legal counsel for the company being sued, and we know everything we need to know about her by the way she lays out her clothes, like she’s instructing them how she wants them to make her look when they’re all through with this. As she senses events spinning out of her control, she finds herself at a moral line, then crossing it, then crossing another, until she reaches that moment my teacher once promised. Watch how she manages in broad daylight to communicate, with language of the most agonizing precision, that she wants someone to remove a problem, but grant her the ability to pretend she didn’t know what means were being used to remove it.

This is a picture rich in nuance and perspective, and more beautiful to look at than you might suspect, existing as it does largely in conference rooms and offices and hotels. Robert Elswit is the director of photography, a regular collaborator on Paul Thomas Anderson’s colorful and dynamic work since Boogie Nights, and he imbues the moneyed settings with an encroaching chill, as if these legal titans have climbed so high that the nourishing oxygen has thinned around them.

Contrast is everything – Michael Clayton exists in a world of privilege, yet he’s not allowed to taste much of it. Too high a salary might prompt questions about his official duties. He holds dark debts to disreputable people, and scorns people close to him for their addictions out of shame for his own. He gambles with his blood money like he can’t stand to hold it. He thinks of himself as the lowest of the low, forgetting that not every “fixer” stops at using cell phones.

He lives in a world where millions and billions go rushing back and forth like the pumping of blood, and so when he’s suddenly facing one of the plaintiffs, a girl who had an $800 airplane ticket purchased for her and sees this as an unimaginable generosity, the whiplash is enough to make him face a question. The question is – is what we’re doing right? The injection of trust, and decency, and simple morality into his bloodstream is a slow but effective agent, and that it could make him see how all the brilliant minds around him might have devoted six years to a case without asking such a question is the heart of Michael Clayton, one of the year’s best films.


  • Gilroy, like Mamet, weaves the elegant("I am Shiva, Goddess of Death"), the profane("You are so fucked"), and the functional("We're good") in one cohesive whole, imbuing each with the requisite amount of tension and a strong directorial arm which renders the uttering of two tiny words and the sight of a man's body treated like a burlap bag, into something truly horrifying. In one corner, in this episode of Celebrity Deathmatch: Best Supporting Actor Edition, we have "The Ultimate Badass", the air-compressor toting, coin-flipping, cattle-gun wielding King of Death, Mr. Anton Chigurh vs. Arthur Edens, the litigously-gifted guy murdered by Danny Noonan from "Caddyshack". On one hand, the outcome seems rather obvious, until the "In The Bedroom" vet pulls "the Ontkean Slapshot Maneuver" which involves offending the principles of one's opponent by removing all articles of clothing. And we know Chigurh is a man of principle, right down to his rigorous adherence to traffic regulations. "Call it, friend-o."

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 7:34 AM  

  • Wilkinson is indeed brilliant. And I just saw There Will Be Blood. He and Mr. Bardem are going to have some company from young Paul Dano, silent no more.

    By Blogger Nick, at 9:25 AM  

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