Tuesday, October 30, 2007


There will be no greater passage of dialogue in any movie this year than what's heard during the opening minutes of Tony Gilroy's stripped down, razor sharp directorial debut MICHAEL CLAYTON. The audience hears an off-screen character, Arthur Edens (the phenomenal Tom Wilkinson), launching into a vitriolic tirade against the American legal system, corporate society, and the evils of big-money lawyering, which he feels has coated him in an amoral slime that he'll never be able to wipe clean off. It's an arresting, fiendishly funny start to an otherwise cold, moody legal thriller; it's the best John Grisham movie that Grisham had no part of creating. Gilroy, best known as the screenwriter--some might say architect--of the Jason Bourne franchise, has a long list of writing credits (THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, PROOF OF LIFE, DOLORES CLAIBORNE), but with MICHAEL CLAYTON, he announces himself as a major directorial talent to watch.

George Clooney is Michael Clayton, a "fixer" at a posh Manhattan law firm, who's already messy life is further complicated by Eden's deposition room meltdown during a trial in Milwaukee. The firm's oily, shady owner Marty Bach (the always amazing Sydney Pollack) asks Clayton to head out to Milwaukee to see what has happened to Arthur and assess the situation. Arthur, it seems, is having a crisis (or breakdown) of conscience; he's been around the legal block many, many times, and while he's slightly jaded, he's had enough of the lying and the deceit. Arthur has been working with one of the firm's biggest clients, the agricultural product provider UNorth. It seems that something fishy is in the water; a product that UNorth has been manufacturing has been deemed dangerous to public health, and UNorth is looking at a class action law suit. UNorth's chief litigator, Karen Crowder (the amazing Tilda Swinton, who will surely be getting a supporting actress Oscar nomination), wants to get the situation cleared up as quickly and as efficiently as possible. But when Arthur strips naked and runs through a parking garage screaming about the evils of society, everyone enters panic mode; it's defcon three for these people.

MICHAEL CLAYTON rests on whether or not Michael, so generously portrayed by Clooney, will come to the aid of his friend or feed him to the wolves. Michael is a curious character. A divorced father and sloppy investor (the restaurant he backed with his cop-brother is going belly-up), he's just the sort of conflicted anti-hero made famous by a slew of 70's movies (THE PARRALAX VIEW and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR come to mind as immediate inspirations) that audiences don't get to see anymore. He's a good but troubled guy, not the slickster you might expect with an actor like Clooney in the role, and his intentions are never easy to read. MICHAEL CLAYTON is the rare Hollywood thriller that uses words instead of bullets to shoot down its characters; the juiciest scenes in this talky film are when smart people in business suits confront one another and tear each other apart with top-flight vocab words. Sure, there's a "car chase", if you want to call it that, but it's the most cerebral car chase you're likely to see. Someone get's murdered (not telling who) but it's carried out in such a cold, calculated, and genuinely creepy fashion that it's more of a lesson in controlled murder than an audience pleasing sequence of violence.

The film crackles thanks to the smart, tight dialogue and the breathless pace; this is a movie from a guy who has written three Jason Bourne adventures, and the tight, no-fat plotting that made those movies such a rush, is on display here but in a different form. Gilroy complements his sharp-as-a-tack script with a no-frills directorial style that doesn't needless amp up the action or make it any more sensational that it needs to be. He's aided enormously by the gifted cinematographer Robert Elswit, whose photographic genius has been displayed in movies as diverse as BOOGIE NIGHTS and SYRIANA; it's a richly detailed but never cluttered looking film. The destaurated color palette works wonders with the chilly New England setting; you feel as if you should be wearing a sweater, literally and figuratively, while watching the film.

But the film rests solidly on the shoulders of its incredible cast, and Clooney is more than up to task as ringleader. He's come a long way from his television days on ER, and movie after movie, he becomes more comfortable, and believable, as a genuine leading man. Always good looking even when under immense stress or dodging an exploding car and smart but never condescending, Clooney is one of my favorite actors currently working. The choices in material that he's made over the last five years as an actor, producer, writer, and director, have been, simply put, extraordinary. Wilkinson, great in everything he appears in (his tour de force performance in IN THE BEDROOM is still the pinnacle of his career), steals every scene he's in, and paints a sad portrait of a man regulated by laws and codes. His disintegration is tragic to watch. And last but certainly not least, the odd yet unmatchable actress Tilda Swinton, is so magnetic in her scenes that she burns a hole in the screen. Sweaty and paunchy and without a hint of self-regard, Swinton almost makes you feel bad for her slimy character. Almost.

I loved MICHAEL CLAYTON and I applaud Gilroy and his entire team for making this sort of thriller. It's rare that a movie consisting almost exclusively of dialogue-driven action could be as exciting as MICHAEL CLAYTON is. It's also worth noting that among the credited producers are three world-class directors: Steven Soderbergh, Sydney Pollack, and Anthony Minghella. Whatever words of wisdom they may have imparted on Gilroy have not gone unnoticed by the novice director. It's one of the best films of the year.

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