Michael Clayton (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When it comes to motion pictures, there are essentially two kinds of thrillers: visceral thrillers, which rely on action to generate tension and excitement, and intellectual thrillers, which burn more slowly but are often more satisfying in the end. Michael Clayton, the directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy, belongs in the latter category. The movie unfolds at its own pace and makes few concessions to impatient viewers or those who don't pay attention. The narrative is dense and presented in a manner that may cause initial confusion (a wrap-around framing device is used).

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an in-house "fixer" at the law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen - a man who can come into almost any situation, no matter how unpleasant, and find a way to clean it up. Although he is by trade a lawyer, he refers to himself as "a janitor" and, like any effective cleaner, he often finds himself up to his armpits in dirt. He is well-paid for his job but he hates it. He wants out. His boss, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), doesn't understand his position. Michael has found a niche where he's at the top of his field - why seek to change things? But right now, life is being unkind to Michael. He's $75,000 in debt as a result of a business venture that went belly-up. His relationship with his son isn't rock-solid (the kid lives with Michael's ex-wife, but sees his dad a couple times a week). And his friend and co-janitor, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), has gone off the deep end. Trouble looms when Arthur decides to blow the lid off a major class-action suit by coming out with damning evidence against one of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen's biggest clients, U/North. U/North corporate lawyer Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) takes steps to stop Arthur, irrespective of the cost. And Marty orders Michael in no uncertain terms to clean up this mess or face potentially dire financial consequences.

Michael Clayton is about characters who inhabit the gray area between morality and immorality, where everyone has a different definition of what constitutes ethics. As in real life, these people are not "good" or "evil" - they are the end product of choices, some right and some wrong. Marty knows that many of his biggest clients are hiding things, but representing them brings in big bucks and keeps the firm afloat in black ink. Michael's job as a fixer means he must often turn a blind eye to ugly situations. Karen Crowder is willing to do just about anything to cover up the misdeeds of her company. Arthur's crisis of conscience is what prompts this showdown of ethics and morality. He can no longer ignore things happening around him when he has become part of a machine that protects a company that's causing people to die of cancer. Michael becomes trapped in the middle - caught between his own underdeveloped sense of right and wrong and his need for financial stability.

Gilroy doesn't serve the plot to the audience in easy-to-digest chunks. It takes a little time for the viewer to figure out who all the characters are and how they relate to each other. The framing device, which causes 90% of the story to be told in flashback, complicates matters. Eventually, all becomes clear unless the viewer makes an inopportune trip to the bathroom. When analyzed in hindsight, the narrative weaves together beautifully, but as it unfolds, the passive viewer who expects everything to be spelled out in capital letters may become lost. Michael Clayton expects more from its audience than most motion pictures.

The film is well acted. George Clooney drops the cocky, self-assured persona of Danny Ocean to present a troubled, conflicted fa├žade. We are told that Michael is a brilliant fixer, a man who can work miracles. We don't see it, though - he appears closer to someone on the verge of a breakdown. Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur as a someone who might be crazy, or merely crazy as a fox. He teeters between lucidity and lunacy, but there's a key meeting between him and Michael that says a lot about his state of mind. Tilda Swinton gives perhaps the most captivating performance as a shark in murkier waters than the ones in which she's accustomed to swim. She makes mistakes - big ones - and is unprepared for the consequences.

Michael Clayton builds to a fitting conclusion and doesn't need surprise twists or cheap theatrics to get to that point. If there's a weakness to the storyline, it's that Michael's motivations sometimes seem determined by the needs of the plot. The film develops gradually and stays rooted in the real world rather than the quasi-familiar realm in which many thrillers unspool. The movie makes a damning statement about the profit-above-all business practices of major corporations, but there's nothing new in that. What's worthwhile here is the way in which the story provides us with unique characters in interesting situations and follows them as they pass through the eye of the storm. Michael Clayton is unlikely to be a major box office player but, as evidenced by films like The Constant Gardener, there is an audience out there for slower, more intellectual thrillers. This is a motion picture for them to discover.

Michael Clayton (United States, 2007)

Director: Tony Gilroy
Cast: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Michael O'Keefe, Ken Howard
Screenplay: Tony Gilroy
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1