Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Cast: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
Director: Tony Gilroy
Runtime: 115 min.
Rating: *****
Genre: Thriller

Michael Clayton is the kind of film that grows on you, on repeated viewing, because you would be so engrossed in the intricacies of the plot the first time around. I state this as an observation. When you know how things will pan out you see how brilliantly it was all set up, and how smart its characters are. It is rare to have pictures, and rarer still are thrillers that have incredibly smart people making decisions. Michael Clayton, after Breach, again represents my kind of cinema, the kind of filmmaking involved, the kind of people in it, the kind of conversations they hold I most identify with. I’m not sure it is great cinema, but hey, it is what it is. When an idea takes birth in my brain, the manner my brain deals with it pretty much feels like Michael Clayton. When I’m critiquing a thriller, the template my brain is referring to is that of Michael Clayton. Let me give you a detailed picture and see for yourself if you need to be wary of me in future.
Michael Clayton is a force operating in the shadows behind the legal lines playing what the law business calls a fixer. Held in high opinion by the head of his New York City law firm, and that would be Marty Back played by Pollack in that trademark style where his authoritative demeanor commands respect and exudes reliability, Clayton is great at his job. He has the necessary connections, he knows the score, he keeps it simple, he talks straight and he lets the client know the reality of the situation. He doesn’t boast of the same skill as far as his life is concerned – he is divorced and seems to have no regrets on the front, an avid gambler down at Chinatown, and he for such a job he doesn’t seem to be having 75 grand, an amount he needs to stop a grave crisis on the personal front. Let us just say that the crisis augurs bad things for him.
Meanwhile, one of the firm’s partners and one heck of a brilliant lawyer Arthur Edens (Wilkinson) has had a relapse of a mental problem in a deposition room, defending the agro-chemical company UNorth being sued for toxic pollution. The psychiatric side of it is murky because he seems to be having an aggravated conscience too, and probably a combination has made him run butt naked through a parking lot allegedly chasing the plaintiffs. The company is unhappy, and Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) Perfect situation for Michael Clayton to enter, and just about the perfect note to be done with the plot.
It is the script, all the way, and it is a killer. That and the actors. Gilroy is a super scriptwriter, boy he has penned the Bourne films and that underrated thriller Proof of Life. He keeps the tension high, but then that is given when you walk into it. For much of the opening time you might find yourself holding to invisible threads having no idea which is going where, but I can assure you it isn’t a state of confusion. It is riveting, listening to the smart dialogues. For a film dealing with people in the law business, it is essential to have great conversations because that is what earns them their bread. This is one such film, and it is a joy to witness these snappy exchanges. These people almost always come to the point, mean business, and whenever it is they’re beating around the bush they’re essentially playing blind, negotiating. It is a pleasure as they almost always find the right words to put forth their point, and in today’s films it just doesn’t happen that often.
I love genre exercises, especially the legal ones, and this one here elevates itself beyond any such confines because of the nonchalance it braves, the slickness with which it moves without resorting to cheap tricks of the trade. Like say a twist in the tale at the last moment, which there isn’t any. I’ve told you I’ve benefited from a second viewing, and the way the game is played out here with nuts and bolts will be appreciated more once you know the street round the corner. Arthur is the good, Karen his counterpart down at the other end of the spectrum and the line in between probably belongs to all the others. Both Arthur and Karen break the set of rules, and cross the line, which in the legal world is lethal. You will be fascinated the way events shape up by the decisions taken.
If the tension in your film is primarily derived out of high-tension technical-term-laden dialogues rest assured you need very good actors. Michael Clayton is the kind of film that has not one or two but four such talents.

George Clooney is one of our precious few combinations of an actor and a performer, stealthily brilliant like Eastwood or Redford. You wouldn’t know how good this guy can be unless you see him immerse completely into his characters without even having to stretch himself. You never feel aware he’s acting, by that I mean there’s never a false note to him. There’s just the hint of weariness and anger simmering underneath that face, in almost every sequence. His Michael Clayton is a case study in urban moral conflict. Two years ago, he would have woken up in the morning walk up to the window and stand gazing at the morning light. Probably reflecting upon himself, trying to squash his conscience. He still does it, probably, only he has got infinitely better at it. Maybe that is why he is getting into the restaurant business. Look at the sequence after his father’s birthday celebrations when he meets Timmy and the conversation he has with his son. You would have probably seen this scene on innumerable occasions, but seldom handled with such flair, seldom such reality to it. In its nonchalance we believe in its feelings all the more. Such is the effect of the performances in it, supported by the filmmaking and not the other way round, that we know Henry, twenty years from now, will hold on to this conversation in a special vault of his heart in the gravest of moments. Hollywood, or for that cinema, just cannot have enough of such brilliant performers.
Tom Wilkinson is a powerhouse, and he has all the ‘big’ lines. There aren’t many character actors like Wilkinson who could provide a film its tour de force without hamming it all up. The film begins by his narrative, his confession of sorts to Michael, and it benefits immensely with the ominous touch it achieves right at the outset. Tilda Swinton, and her character, benefit most from the script and are aided most by the filmmaking. Her Swinton has a lot of nervous bones in her body, and she seems to have a method or an exercise of sorts to allay them. I was reminded of Faye Dunaway in Network and this is probably the best compliment I can manage for her. When the principal characters have such good actors playing them, the supporting cast easily feels perfect.
This is Tony Gilroy’s first film as a director, and it is apparent he has the heart and soul of a storyteller. He never imposes himself upon the film; he just lets the narration flow effortlessly. He seems to be an actor’s director, and the finesse with which he handles them, in close ups, dealing with each other reminds me of Steven Soderbergh. Alongwith the great cinematographer Robert Elswith (Syriana, Magnolia) he opts for a coldly menacing environment around much of the film. It is interesting though how he has all the family sequences in the daylight, opposite to the run of the play. It is a great transition, and I can say I expected it considering the intelligence of his work with his scripts.
There’s a scene involving horses that seems to be bothering a lot of people. All I would like to ask of you is to juxtapose it with conversation Arthur holds with Michael’s son Henry. And ask yourself – Do lawyers dream of meadows? Oh yeah, they do. Everyone does.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Watched Michael Clayton. Loved it. Gilroy remains a master of the words. Such brilliant lines. His direction is effortless and simple. But it feels that he's more comfortable with words than camera. Waiting for his next work!