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Although Tony Gilroy has written a number of successful screenplays over the years, his debut as a director, in Michael Clayton (which he wrote as well), is astonishing. He’s got a lot of good stuff to work with – notably a fine cast and terrific production values – but there are also a lot of familiar elements, such as lawyers who will stop at nothing, semi-psychopathic hit men, broken-down Irish-American cops, greedy corporations, and that very popular stock figure these days, the exhausted bag man who wants to come in out of the cold. Michael Clayton could have been a thriller – Richard Loncraine’s Firewall comes to mind – as easily as it could have been a dolled-up episode of Law & Order. It might, for the matter of that, have been developed into a series for HBO. The movie is full of undeveloped material that might have been stretched into weeks and weeks of must-see entertainment.
Instead, the movie assumes that you’re as familiar with the backstories that it touches on as the title character, played with something of the troubled aspect of a thoughtful adolescent by George Clooney, assumes that the people he deals with are about the nature of his work. Even his son, Henry (Austin Williams) doesn’t require lengthy explanations. A good example of the film’s brisk economy is its treatment of Tim (David Lansbury), Michael’s fuck-up brother, because of whom Michael has lost what was supposed to have been a successful bar-restaurant, and been stuck with $75,000 in outstanding debt after the liquidation. Tim is a drunk and a pill-popper. He’s worthless and, in his first scene, which falls very late in the film, Michael can barely give him the time of day. When, somewhat later, Tim manages to do Michael a small but necessary favor, redemption is not part of the quid pro quo – all of which we know without a word’s being spoken. Tim is not interesting; he’s in the movie because he has made his brother’s life very hard. Lots of people are stuck with brothers like Tim, and thanks to the movies of the past thirty years, we know all about such losers. Michael Clayton doesn’t waste a second feeling sorry for this one.
All of this blithe telegraphing is very flattering to the audience. But if our time is not taken up with familiar scenes of rage and recrimination, then what is Mr Gilroy making time for? An inherently disturbing sequence of scenes, scenes that bleed into one another with dialogue that begins before the visuals of the preceding scene have come to an end. This is hardly a new trick, but Mr Gilroy exploits it to magnificent effect – or, to be more specific, to the effect of keeping us in the dark about what’s up next. The device is so relentlessly played that it takes us a minute or two to realize that it is not being used in a certain uncomfortable moment for Michael Clayton involving a crime scene, a heavily underlined book, and a pair of policemen. Mr Gilroy does everything he can to put us in Michael’s uncertain shoes. In a bitter exchange shortly after the encounter with the cops, Michael’s “good” brother, Gene (Sean Cullen), a police detective, jeers at Michael for fooling half the world into thinking that he’s a lawyer and the other half into thinking that he’s a cop, “but you know what you really are” – a man somewhere between nothing and a mess. Michael is something of a ruptured James Bond: only his failures are subject to discussion. His successes are known to a handful of men who are hardly about to publicize them. Most of the people who know something about Michael regard him as a pariah, a poor candidate for friendship. Following Michael Clayton through this picture is rather like a rough North Atlantic crossing: don’t expect to enjoy the five-star cuisine.
Almost any of Hollywood’s top thirty stars over the age of forty could have done a good job with Michael, but knowing that only renders Mr Clooney’s performance more palpably stratospheric. His stoicism is workmanlike rather than heroic: it’s part of his job, like knowing how to drive – and how to talk inordinately entitled executives down from the ether of their demented self-importance. He is very good at cleaning up sticky situations and minimizing embarrassing damage, but it has been some time since he found his grasp of these skills at all impressive. He is as trapped as the superbly-gifted but reluctant, even disinterested athlete. He would like to practice law, but he’d be only good at it, not the incomparable whiz that he has become as a “cleaner.” He would rather have a stable life, with maybe even a girlfriend. Amazingly, it’s not until the movie’s over that you realize that the biggest dreamboat in the industry today hasn’t held a woman in his arms or kissed a cheek that didn’t belong to a relative. “Love interest”? How junior high. At the same time, nothing in the movie suggests that Michael Clayton has “issues” with women. Among the many well-worn scenes that we’re spared is the one in which the exasperated girlfriend scolds the hero for liking his lousy job more than he likes her. Mr Clooney gives us a character who has clearly been accused of such unromantic preferences dozens of times, so there’s no need to sit through another one of them.
Where Mr Clooney is almost impatient with his own coolness, Tilda Swinton, who plays the bad guy, is all nerves. It’s the sort of thing that she can do whether her character is sympathetic or not. Here, although she is, as I say, the bad guy, she is not entirely unsympathetic, either. As Karen Crowder, general counsel for the big bad agribusiness defendant, she is a career woman who is in over her head, "mentored" into becoming a proficient rubber-stamper by her boar of a predecessor and boss (Ken Howard), and driven by her own inexperience to take extreme, ultimately foolish measures. If only she had consulted Michael Clayton about the mess that she finds herself in, instead of writing him off as an unprofessional, over-hyped “miracle worker” whose suggestions, however excellent, are disappointingly pedestrian. She certainly needs a miracle, and she’s not about to bank on the tired, bestubbled fixer who shows up (unpardonably) late for an interview. Mr Gilroy frames Karen’s high anxiety in a jumble of scenes in which she is either glossily participating in a televised interview or anxiously rehearsing it in her hotel room, too fixated on the ideal choice of words to attend to her toilette.
Tom Wilkerson, who gets second billing, plays the movie’s problem character, Arthur Edens, a manic-depressive but fiercely effective defense attorney who has gone off his meds and come to see the virtues of the plaintiffs’ position. Since the corporation that he has been shielding for six years with every manner of dilatory maneuver is indeed guilty of exposing small farmers who use its products to poisoned water from their own wells, he is certainly right, as a man, to see where the justice of the case lies. But his conversion is also ludicrously unprofessional; by any proper standard, he ought to have given up the case to some other attorney with killer instincts. Intoxicated by self-righteousness, Edens is not an admirable character, no matter how sorry we feel for him in his derangement. He is just as obnoxiously grandiose on the side of right as he was on the side of wrong. Mr Wilkerson does a fine job of keeping Edens from tugging at our sympathies.
The magnificent supporting cast is no less invested in Michael Clayton's existential uncertainties than Mr Clooney himself. Although it seems unfair to single out a couple of standouts, I can't resist a rave for Sidney Pollack, who, at least since Tootsie, has been playing cynical machers whose hearts, when they beat at all, are usually in the right place. He is so good here that you wonder why he is not in fact the mega-rich head partner of a major New York law firm. Then you do the math. As an actor, Mr Pollack's hourly rate leaves even the hottest attorneys' in the dust. I also want to praise Julie White for almost stealing a scene in which her face is never in focus. Nursing a drink in a corner of her kitchen, she radiates disgust with her master-of-the-universe husband (Dennis O'Hare) while he berates Michael for not being the "miracle worker" he has been promised. Ms White, who took Broadway by storm in The Little Dog Laughed, has a lot of catching up to do. Let's hope she lands the roles that she deserves.
Finally, there are the horses. What is there for horses to do in the movies that hasn't been done a million times before? See Michael Clayton and find out. In a scene that we're shown twice - the second time, to our greater comprehension - Michael pulls over his Mercedes when he spies a trio of horses grazing atop a Westchester hillock. As he climbs toward them, they stand impassively, neither curious nor frightened. When he is almost near enough to touch them, the camera pulls across their profiles, and they are no longer horses but divinities waiting for Michael to solve a riddle. Both times, the moment is powerfully mysterious and mightily providential.
At the end of Michael Clayton, Michael hails a taxi and hands the driver a fifty. "Drive," he says, and the camera remains fixed on Mr Clooney's face for about a minute, before the screen is given wholly over to the credits. A squall of minutely registered emotions crosses the actor's weathered visage. Never has a protracted close-up been so free of overstatement. I like to think that the shot was wrapped in the first take. (October 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press