Michael Clayton December 1, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , trackback
Admittedly, this is not a traditional review at all. I saw Michael Clayton a couple of weeks ago, in a small theater on an otherwise uninteresting day. I was anxious to watch it, based on positive reviews, George Clooney’s usual dramatic competence, and writer/director Tony Gilroy’s impressive screenwriting work on the Bourne films. It didn’t blow me away though. Far from flashy or calling attention to itself, Gilroy’s directorial debut plays like a highly competent legal thriller. Yet, it sneaks up on you. I’ve seen nearly every lawyer-related movie I know of, but this was a refreshingly different approach. No courtrooms, no cases really. Clooney’s Michael Clayton character is a lawyer in name and title only. He describes himself as a janitor, someone who fixes the problems of the rich.
This is apt, too. The character is incredibly weary, worn like a reliable pair of pants bought years ago. The story is told in a present-flashback-present mode that too often feels gimmicky, but completely works here. We don’t see what Clayton was or did before the events in the film, but Clooney’s performance and Gilroy’s contribution tell us absolutely everything. It’s stunning how accomplished and effortlessly the backstories stand out here. Anything we need to know about what Michael Clayton has done previously is completely contained within Clooney. The diversionary false lead we’re given, where Clayton visits a wealthy hit-and-run proponent in the middle of the night, works incredibly well the second time around. In fact, it’s difficult to think of another movie where the before-and-after device is used to better effect.
The most surprising thing here isn’t that the movie works, it’s that it really sticks as an affecting, memorable look at corporate malfeasance. I’ve been trying to catch up and voraciously watch the “big” fall movies and few, if any, have made an impact like Michael Clayton. It’s absolutely solid movie-making, on par with the best of the genre films Hollywood put out in the 1970s. Yet, because it is so enmeshed in conventional storytelling and limited ambition, I think it’s easy to overlook the film initially. There’s little that stands out while you’re watching the movie. Frequently, I’ll find myself completely enthralled in a film’s plot, dying to know what’s going to happen, only to end up shedding any lasting memory of it hours later. By total contrast, Gilroy’s film has burrowed its way inside my head while others have long since fallen by the wayside.
A huge part of this is due to the ending (I won’t spoil it, don’t worry). I don’t think there’s been a more fitting finale all year. I’m generally not great with endings. I don’t always remember them and, unless they pull the rug out from under the rest of the movie, I often fail to place any additional emphasis on the last few minutes than what I’d been watching the previous couple of hours. Michael Clayton is different somehow. So completely satisfying, so mysteriously uncertain, it’s nearly perfect. Not only does the film’s plot circle around to an entirely appropriate finish, but the final shots are likewise without flaw. As the credits roll, the images remain mesmerizing. Clooney is magnetic. I feel like Gilroy may have lifted this particular idea from something else, but I don’t know what it was and I’m not sure it would have worked as well anyway. If he didn’t, then I’m even more impressed.
The Clayton character is far from admirable and refreshingly without total redemption, but he’s the best we’ve got and that’ll have to do. I’m just so happy that a studio movie like this could be made today, where everything is murky and no one’s perfect. If my reactions are based on heart and gut more than other, more sophisticated senses then so be it. I think this is one of the best films in recent memory and it’s possibly the only movie this year where my opinion has elevated as time has passed instead of falling into the ether. Anyone watching the film should stay for the entirety of the main credits and fix their eyes on Clooney’s performance to see one of the best examples of nonverbal acting this year. Up to this point in his career, it’s the actor’s signature role.