Michael Clayton, a high-priced law firm's fixer, leaves a late night poker game, gets a call to drive to Westchester, and watches his car blow up as he's taking an impromptu dawn walk through a field. Flash back four days. He owes a loan shark to cover his brother's debts (Michael's own gambling habits have left him virtually broke). His law firm is negotiating a high-stakes merger, and his firm's six year defense of a conglomerate's pesticide use is at risk when one of the firm's top litigators goes off his meds and puts the case in jeopardy. While Michael is trying to fix things someone decides to kill him. Who? Meanwhile his son summarizes the plot of a dark fantasy novel. Written by
When Clayton first gets the booklet from the print shop, it has a black plastic binding. Later it changes to a wire one. See more »
Michael. Dear Michael. Of course it's you, who else could they send, who else could be trusted? I... I know it's a long way and you're ready to go to work... all I'm saying is wait, just wait, just-just-just... please hear me out because this is not an episode, relapse, fuck-up, it's... I'm begging you Michael. I'm begging you. Try and make believe this is not just madness because this is not just madness. Two weeks ago I came out of the building, okay, I'm running across Sixth ...
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So are spoken as some of the most desperate words- not crazy, there's a difference- in recent movie memory. Michael Clayton is about the character trying to deal with his hand of fate, which is pretty dire: he's 45, working for 17 years for a law-firm where he's a "fixer", cleaning up the problems that can't be solved through simple litigations. Now he has a problem with the chief attorney, the "legend" Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) who has just gone streaking after one of the witnesses in a parking lot. The whole case could fall apart, but is there more than meets the eye? Murder, wire-taps, cover-ups, bombs, and at the core the placidity of a straight-laced face (Tilda Swinton), are all apart of the not-too-complicated puzzle.
It goes without saying that there is a little more than some debt that Gilroy owes to Network, if only in the face-value to be taken from the characters: the weathered professional, the nut who really has ecstatic truth in the Herzog sense, the cold and exacting woman, and the guy working as a top dog behind the scenes. But where Network was as dark as satires get, if there's any laughter to come out of Michael Clayton it's only in the extremely uncomfortable moments of Wilkinson walking in a daze through Times Square or disrobing maniacally on video, or a couple of chuckles at the wrap-up climax. It's a paranoid thriller where, in reality, it's not exactly paranoia in the strictest sense: if it's really happening, then it shouldn't be something to watch out for. But Gilroy continues to build on a sensibility of paranoia, of the darkness creeping up behind the corporate facade, of the sinister presence of those men in cars and vans with total access to whatever and whenever with the target. And you thought the Bourne movies- co-written by Gilory- were tense genre pieces.
What makes a film like Michael Clayton end up as memorable as it is, almost essential for those wanting to go to the movies for a serious drama without pretense or extreme melodrama, is the script and the performances. It's indeed such a strong script that it surely covers over the direction- as a directorial debut it feels like the work of a professional with countless years behind the belt, with a few notes of experimentation (the opening rambling voice-over on the looming, still shots of the empty rooms at the office at night, and the final shot as something that breaks away from what could be a bit more predictable and instead kind of haunting). And it's something as literate as this that allows for actors to go for what they can do best: for Wilkinson, Oscar worthy to a T, it's both subtle and over-the-top with Arthur, at one point making a masterful stroke of carrying loaves of bread; Swinton makes the careful act of preparation and looking at a mirror like it's everything to the character; Pollack, solid as usual, not too much to say.
Then there's Clooney. Already one of those leading men in Hollywood that has enough clout to probably get Sim City made into a movie if he wanted to, when given a serious and complex enough part to dive into (which has been frequent lately save for the Ocean movies) he's near perfect. I love seeing him on the brink of exploding at Arthur when he first sees him going on and on in the prison cell, or when he levels with his kid about his druggie-bum brother, or just in the way he looks frightened and unsure at some horses in a field. And the aforementioned shot couldn't be done so well by anyone else- you don't want to leave the theater even as the credits roll by, because he might do something, something slight behind the usual super-handsome exterior as he leaves the audience wanting to see more. It's an excellent genre film, but it's probably one of the few near perfect performances of the actor's career (and yes, I include Return of the Killer Tomatoes in that group).
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