'A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have
its own reward.' ~ George R.R. Martin
Michael Clayton is the name that belongs to a character played by George Clooney,
a man who is so handsome it's almost boring and then he talks and whoa where did
the time go. At his best, Clooney is fun to just watch talk and he does that a lot
in 'Michael Clayton'. But it's not the smarmy, cool, confident talking you've seen
him do in 'Ocean's Eleven'. No, Clooney in 'Michael Clayton' is beleaguered, tired,
and questioning everything he's done. And it is magnetic.
'Michael Clayton' (2007) is a riveting, suspenseful, slick corporate thriller and
was a superb directorial debut for writer, turned director, Tony Gilroy, an attestation
to his skill as a storyteller. Best known for his contributions to the Jason Bourne
trilogy. Twenty years ago, he penned 'The Devil's Advocate', which imagined Satan as
the head of a top law firm. In researching for that film, he stumbled upon an internal
memo, by a large corporation, explaining their decision not to recall a certain car,
because of a fatal, defective part. Their legal counsel and financial advisers concluded
they were better off litigating, if and when, a case would reach the courts, than go
through the expensive process of a recall. From the look of things, Gilroy's opinion
of the legal profession has not improved.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an in-house 'fixer' at one of the largest corporate
law firms in New York. A former criminal prosecutor, Clayton takes care of Kenner, Bach
& Ledeen's dirtiest work at the behest of the firm's co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney
Pollack in his second to last film role). The firm has two big deals going. One is
a merger that would fold them into a bigger operation, reaping rich rewards for Bach.
The other is a huge class-action lawsuit against their biggest client, major conglomerate
U/North (think Monsanto), which after years of skirmishing is about to settle pre-trial.
But then Kenner's point man on the case, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson 'This Beautiful
Fantastic '2016), as a public meltdown in the middle of a deposition. U/North's own
counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton 'War Machine '2017) becomes infuriated and lashes
out at their representation. So Bach dispatches Clayton to fix the damage. Edens certainly
seems unbalanced, but he and Clayton are old friends. As hardened as Clayton might be
in his job, there is a certain amount of empathy. Edens may have mental issues, but the
divorced Clayton, father of a young son, has family problems. Add to that, a barely
controlled gambling addiction, and a debt he and his brother owe to some very bad men
over a failed restaurant. When Edens talks about U/North, Clayton listens and realizes
that he is not hearing crazy talk, which leads to his central dilemma: If Clayton does
the rightb thing for once, will he endanger his own position with the firm? And if Edens
is right about this corporate evil, will he risk his life?
Swinton and Pollack offer wonderful supporting turns, but Clooney is terrific, his
world-weary charm perfect for the tarnished Clayton. Early in the movie (though late in
the story, as the film's time-shifting scheme of things) when Clayton, having just cleaned
up a client's mess and driving toward home, at dawn, stops his car and gets out, climbs
up a hill to commune with a trio of horses. At this point in the tale, the behavior does
not track, but it is a testament to Clooney's talent, as an actor, that he is able to sell
the scene. This movie belongs to Wilkinson, who is simply breathtaking. Michael Clayton
may be the movie's hero, but Arthur Edens is its moral center. Wilkinson's sublime
performance elevates 'Michael Clayton' from an above-average thriller into the realm
This is not an action movie in the manner of the Bourne movies, but instead it is quietly
paranoid, a throwback to the '70s style storytelling of something like 'The Parallax View'
(1974). Gilroy does not create white-knuckle suspense so much as a simmering tension that
will surely burn Clayton if it ever comes to a boil. Editor John Gilroy, the director's
brother, deserves a lot of credit for maintaining an unhurried pace that nevertheless
telegraphs the threat that Clayton faces.
'Michael Clayton' is a wonderfully understated thriller. It doesn't have fight scenes or
a dramatic score or the kinetic feel of a Bourne movie. Instead, it's the most mesmerizing
of slow burns, about a man who witnesses a house collapsing around him in slow motion,
and wondering whether or not he should even bother hatching a scheme to get out.
In this reviewer's opinion, this was one of the great films to emerge out of Hollywood,
in a very, very long time. Shame on them for not created more and shame on you if you
don't experience it.
© Frank Borsellino™
© From Where I Sit™
November 15, 2017
* George Clooney & Sydney Pollack 'Michael Clayton' (2007)