Saturday, January 26, 2008
Michael Clayton is a crisp, smart, economical legal thriller that is perhaps more than a little predictable in the machinations of its plot, but it makes up for its small bows to genre conventions in other areas. Most notably, the film is first and foremost a study of its title character, with George Clooney giving a great performance as a high-powered lawyer whose specialty is "fixing" delicate and difficult problems for his company's wealthy business clients. He's growing weary of his job, though, and the constant pressure not to mention the realization that he's on the wrong "side" morally are beginning to take a toll on him. He's also a compulsive gambler, he's divorced and has a young son who he obviously loves and admires, and he's got an accumulation of debts after a failed business deal with his alcoholic brother. Clooney truly inhabits this downtrodden role, playing a man worn out by his life but not necessarily devoid of energy yet.
This is the directorial debut for screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who wrote the scripts for the Jason Bourne trilogy as well as The Devil's Advocate and Dolores Claiborne. But Michael Clayton is certainly his strongest script so far; the dialogue is sharp and always believable, benefiting tremendously from a uniformly great cast, and the twists and turns of the plot keep the suspense elevated. The film is constructed as a loop, opening with a scene where Clayton leaves a card game to fix a problem with a client who committed a hit-and-run accident. He deals with it, then drives away, noticeably exhausted and aggravated, and stops by the side of the road to stretch his legs and admire three horses standing on a hill. While Clayton stands in front of the horses, Gilroy composes a shot from behind the animals, facing Clayton, with his car parked by the side of the road over his shoulder, conspicuously framed into the shot a moment later, it becomes apparent why when the vehicle erupts into a fireball. The film then jumps back to four days earlier in a fade-to-white, and the remainder of the narrative catches things back up to this point.
It's easy to dismiss this kind of non-chronological structuring as pure gimmickry, a cheap trick with no purpose, but Gilroy actually handles it beautifully. On one level, yes, the structure serves to enhance suspense, to create a sense of mystery so that the film is essentially answering the question of who tried to kill Clayton and why. But the second time this sequence is replayed, towards the end of the film when the chronology has led back up to it, it has acquired a new significance and new meanings to its details and to the psychology of Clayton. The first time we see these things happening, we're watching for plot, for events, trying to understand what's happening; the second time, it's Clayton we're trying to understand, and the events here are important not in themselves but in relation to his character and persona. The experience of reviewing the opening events towards the end of the film is a process of fitting together Clayton's personality, contemplating the changes he's undergone in the course of the film and what these events might mean to him. What had seemed mere surface, basic plotting, at the beginning of the film, becomes laden with psychological meanings. This slow process of boring into Clayton's character is even reflected structurally in the film's opening and closing shots. The first shots of the film are all empty, nearly devoid of life the first few minutes of the film consist of a montage of images from within the law firm, late at night, while Wilkinson rants in voiceover. The meaning of his monologue, his disgust with his profession and the way he's wasted his life, is not yet clear, but the empty rooms and corridors speak volumes about the loneliness and distance of these characters. The final shot of the film is a sustained closeup on Clooney's face, after he's definitively redeemed himself, stepped back over to the "right" side of the moral boundary. The film's trajectory is thus from an empty room with no people in it to a closeup on a human face it's a movement from corporate distance to individualistic humanism.
Although Clooney is the film's center, he's counterbalanced by equally strong performances from Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens, a lawyer defending a chemical giant for the harm caused by one of their insecticides, and Tilda Swinton as the chemical company's chief lawyer. Edens precipitates the film's plot when he has a psychotic incident in a deposition room, stripping off his clothes and ranting incomprehensibly. His degenerating mental state, ironically, helps him to see things more clearly, and he realizes that he is definitively on the wrong side in this case, that by defending the chemical company he is helping them get away with murder for the deaths and cancers they've caused. His quixotic efforts to build a case against the company instead of for them lead to the violence and high-level cover-ups that make up the film's thriller plot. Swinton is his opposite number, in some ways equally pressured and weighed down by her job, but nevertheless committed to keeping things under control at any cost. Her performance is stellar, perfectly capturing her character's uncertainty and the in-over-her-head feeling she suffers at nearly every moment. Gilroy nails her character in several scenes in which he juxtaposes her interviews and speeches to the press and investors with her earlier preparations for these public appearances. What seems relaxed and spontaneous in public is revealed as carefully rehearsed, with each word carefully chosen, right down to the seeming hesitations and fumbling for a word that inject some humanity into the proceedings. Her character is a true corporate drone, and even her human touches are faked, that is until she is forced to confront the taking of a human life then, Gilroy shows her sweating, the armpits of her blouse stained, one human touch that even she can't fake.
It's this attention to detail, this intelligent characterization and visual storytelling, that elevates Michael Clayton above its genre origins and makes it such a worthwhile film. As the plot weaves its predictable way towards an inevitable but highly satisfying conclusion, the only conclusion possible without resorting to nihilism, the script slowly digs its way into these characters, not only Clooney's, but also Wilkinson and Swinton. The result is a briskly paced thriller that never sacrifices character for plot.