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Michael Clayton – innovative, thoughtful, enjoyable, satisfying

Wilkinson - Clooney

Wilkinson - Clooney

Michael Clayton – Tony Gilroy

Watch Gilroy go. This intelligent, absorbing, innovative thriller is Tony Gilroy’s impressive directorial debut. It comes as no surprise that he wrote the superb screenplay having a track record that includes writing credits on all three films in the excellent Bourne franchise, Proof of Life and Devil’s Advocate. With brother John, Gilroy’s masterly editing there is a tangible artistic coherence to the whole film that makes it a very satisfying night at the movies. Heartening proof that you don’t have to park your brain cells with the car to be thoroughly entertained and stimulated.

George Clooney gives Gilroy one of his best performances to date as the eponymous Michael Clayton; addicted gambler, divorced, ex-DA, litigator turned Mr Fix-it for Marty Bach’s (the ever-reliable Sydney Pollack) law firm, Kenner Bach. With an ex-cop father and brother Gene one year away from a police pension, Michael’s roots in the law are clear. This sharp-end moral clarity contrasts with the inevitably grey areas and murky compromises of corporate law and what Marty calls his ‘niche’ role as the firm’s problem ‘janitor’ – the guy you call in to clean up when things get messy. Clooney just keeps getting better; age and a little mid-life extra weight giving him an increasing gravitas on screen. Head-waggling now gone he has learned to be still on camera allowing us to discover his character for ourselves.

The ever-present and reliable Tom Wilkinson puts in another strong performance as brilliant but manic-depressive lawyer Arthur Edens. Arthur is 6-years in to a multi-billion $ class-action suit defending Agricorp U/North against claims of the cancer-inducing qualities of one of their insecticides. When Arthur discovers a cynical cover-up by his own client he wanders off his medication, the corporate law reservation and his trolley. Incensed by the cynical duplicity of his client in resisting a justified claim, Arthur flips his lid and his side by beginning to build up the plaintiffs’ case against his own clients. His lithium-free behaviour includes being arrested for stripping naked during a deposition and denouncing the moral perversion endemic to the use of the law to protect the commercial interests of major corporations. Michael is dispatched to sort out the mess raising conflicts of friendship, loyalty and an empathic world-weariness at the role of the law at the corporate end of our culture

To muddy the moral waters still more we find that Kenner Bach have become overly dependent upon the U/North account the loss of which could bankrupt the firm. Tilda Swinton, in the only doubtful casting in the film, is Karen Crowder, finally spinning her workaholic skills in corporate law into promotion to CEO of U/North. Swinton’s Karen is just too twitchy and brittle to have got anywhere near such a senior management role. Her nervous recourse to corporate ‘black-ops’ would have been just as credible driven by calm venal ambition as the naïve self-doubting, promoted-beyond-her-competence character Gilroy writes and Swinton struggles to make credible.

Everyone in Michael Clayton is presented with real-life pressures professional and personal that challenge their ethics. Even Michael is conflicted between his long friendship with Arthur and the threat he is under to repay a massive debt hung round his neck by his substance-abusing younger brother. Gilroy knows the true test of one’s morality is how one responds not when things are going well but when the heat is on and good solutions have bad moral consequences.

Strong dialogue, solid performances, credible characters in believably difficult situations are drawn together by a complex but satisfying narrative thread. But it is the innovative, time-fractured way Gilroy structures this movie that catches the eye and absorbs the attention. Flash-back and reprise are commonplace techniques that savvy modern audiences ‘read’ perfectly well. But Gilroy uses this technique in an unusual and remarkably effective way. Usually the audience are given a sort of ‘outside-the-frame’ overview of the way events in a plot hang together, part of the fun being that we often know more than each individual character within the action knows. We are like James Stewart in Rear Window, voyeurs of events that intrigue and challenge us. And like him we have to try to work things out, helped as we go by the director feeding us clues and information.

But Gilroy does something altogether more intriguing and interesting. He draws us in to Clayton’s world and we are struggling just as he is to make sense of how events connect. There is a very distinctive realistic feel to this. Although we love to make sense of our lives by seeing them as a narrative, as a series of necessarily linked and connected events, the coherence that enables us to make a story of our experience is necessarily post-hoc. We create our personal narratives looking back. As the events are happening we are often bemused and lost within them, precisely unable to make any sense of them at all. Even our intentional actions characteristically produce unintended consequences that undermine any sense of an underlying, necessary thread or narrative to our lives that simply unwinds to its pre-determined conclusion. By time-fracturing events, leaving us literally as unclear as Clayton himself of how events connect, Gilroy creates a unique sense of dramatic tension; just as in real life, you keep wondering whether events will connect, will make sense. From the very first unusual but satisfyingly credit-free opening, when all we hear is Arthur’s apparently lunatic ramblings, we can’t get a clear focus even on what kind of movie this is. I had wondered at the oddly prosaic title but even its flatness works – because it signals nothing – but for precisely that reason it raises questions in the mind. So who’s Michael Clayton? What kind of movie title is that? Titles usually send us signals ‘3.10 to Yuma’ ‘The Mighty Heart’, ‘The Brave One’ to mention just 3 on current release.

Knowing you are seeing a constructed movie and not a slice of reality TV for example, it isn’t giving anything away to say that this movie does have a cleverly constructed plot; that it does add up. Indeed when Gilroy eventually and at the last minute draws the narrative threads together, they are clever and satisfying. The resonance of the moral ambiguity and grey areas of the role of the law in our culture and our lives; the challenges to our ethics and personal values presented by pressures like money and ambition; and the link between our sense of self-worth and the way we act under those pressures, gives an added depth to this otherwise relatively workmanlike plot and set of characters.

This sense of involvement and absorption is marvellously sustained by Gilroy throughout by subtle editing and excellent dialogue that implies, hints, suggests rather than simply outlines what is going on. To enjoy this film you have to respond to Gilroy’s invitation to get involved and think. If you do, you will have an extremely enjoyable, absorbing and in the end satisfying night at the movies. This one does a great deal more than it says on the tin. Re-inforced of course by it saying absolutely nothing on the tin in the first place.

It is an exciting prospect that Gilroy is currently working on the film version of the superb BBC mini-series State of Play with an impressive cast of Brad Pitt, Ed Norton, Helen Mirren and Robin Wright-Penn. If he can bring to that project the imagination and flair he shows in Michael Clayton that is one to look forward to.

(October 2007)

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