Written and directed by Tony Gilroy
Michael Clayton is a “fixer” at one of the biggest law firms in the country. Got a big-time client who just ran someone over with their car? Clayton’s your man. “I’m not a miracle worker,” he tells a troubled client, “I’m a janitor.” He’s lauded consistently as the best guy for the job--and then his Mercedes bursts into flames in the middle of a forrest road. Michael Clayton, a masterful film by Tony Gilroy, is the best made, most thrilling film made so far this year. The suspense is pulsating, but the human element of the story is dealt with so grandly, that we are strapped in for a great piece of filmmaking.
Michael Clayton (played by George Clooney) is the best in the “fixing” business, but he holds other demons. When he takes his son to school, he has to face the facts that he really doesn’t know his son at all; and he’s becoming increasingly indebted by a bar business he adopted in case the role as “fixer” didn’t work out. This is all expository on the character of Clayton, the action of the story starts when Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) sabotages one of the law firms biggest cases, a class action lawsuit against the corporation U/North, and Clayton is forced into the most challenging “cleanup” of his career.
When Edens discovers the damage U/North pollution has done to farmers (including deaths), he kicks his manic-depressive medication and strips naked inside the deposition room. From this point on, Edens is frantically building a case against U/North using evidence only he has. The only person who seems able to pierce Edens’s core is Clayton. Clayton and Edens are friends, but Arthur has grown tired of being the “fixer” he’s been his whole career, he wants to do the right thing. As Clayton attempts to control Arthur before the firm and U/North find their own ways of controlling him, Clayton uncovers a dangerous world of deceit and murder, and is faced with some powerful decisions.
This is the directorial debut for Tony Gilroy, who has had much success as a screenwriter (the Bourne films, Armageddon). This is a polished film, and produced with much skill unlike that of a debut. Gilroy understands that this is a story where the characters are complex, not so much the story itself. He allows the film to piece itself together, and what we end up with is an incredible mosaic of intrigue and suspense, building to a satisfying climax. It is about as perfect an execution as you can have in the “legal thriller” genre.
Cinematographer Robert Elswit (Good Night, and Good Luck) makes much beauty out of the simplicity in the shots. Everyone is shrouded in some shadow. The film is edited by Gilroy’s little brother, John Gilroy, who is able to cut the film so smoothly, pushing the conversations to the forefront, but not ignoring the stylised quick cuts that make the film run at rapid pace. John Newton Howard’s score is one of brooding mystery. It is my favorite kind of score: a score which is constantly displaying the feelings and thoughts within the central character.
George Clooney seems to be at the peak of his acting career with Clayton. Clayton is seen driving his Mercedes, wearing a perfect, unwrinkled suit, and every hair in place. That is, until things are going wrong, and then everything becomes disheveled and unkempt. Clooney takes his time showing Clayton’s disintegration, wearing a face of discouragement and disappointment. Clayton doesn’t want to do what he does, but it is what he does best. He’d rather have a mundane life as a prosecutor, but the constant pressure from the heads of the firm, as well as bookies, keep him stuck in it. Clooney is excellent at showing all the emotions within Clayton, but he is best at showing his loss of integrity.
The film’s strength is in it’s cast, and Clooney is buoyed by a number of great supporting performances. Tom Wilkinson’s Arthur Eden is deranged and dangerous, but the heart of the character to do what is right probably makes the most poignant element within the movie. Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, the cheif legal executive for U/North, who thinks she knows what it takes to be in charge of a cut-throat business, but may go a little too far. Swinton’s portrayal as the bewildered Crowder is another example of Swinton’s regal talent. Sydney Pollack plays Marty Bach, one of the partners within the law firm--Clayton performs his “fix jobs” at Bach’s behest. Pollack shows Bach as a kind-hearted man, but he knows the ins and outs and displays absolute authority.
Michael Clayton may be the best made film to come out this year, and is a masterful exercise within a genre made popular in the 1970’s. Clayton has no true moments of overwhelming idealism, nor is it a film with a specific significance, but as a film that executes, as well as entertains, you can get no better than this film.