Michael Clayton, the invigorating new legal thriller starring George Clooney, which opens today in Toledo, throws a lot at you at first: We get, in quick succession, with no explanation, an exploding luxury sedan, Clooney sitting at a poker game, a board meeting growing tense, then a voice-mail message from a man (who, we re not certain yet) in the middle of a paranoid, apocalyptic spiel. In retrospect, I forget which moment came first, and which came last and I believe that s the point. Moving from tension to tension, with an unusual amount of confidence, writer-director Tony Gilroy tightens a vise around your noggin.
Holds that grip, assaults us.
Then, a break in the clouds.
Tossed in there, mixed briefly into the first scenes, then at the end, is an odd instant of clarity.
Indeed, it is so calm and placid it involves horses, standing on a hill in upstate New York at dawn it s more unnerving than the intense corporate speak and intrigue that preceded it. We have a solid 20 minutes before we know exactly what s taking place, how such disparate scenes connect. But if it takes time to locate your bearings, it s not an unpleasant feeling; the film is deeply satisfying, if plodding occasionally. With the horses, Gilroy ingeniously introduces us to the world of Michael Clayton (Clooney), and we know it before we hear it said that his life is a perversion. Here is a character whose environment is so murky that clear water a well-earned respite from his concrete jungle is disorienting, a dead stop after racing at 90 miles per hour.
Michael Clayton catches up with this eponymous character during a handful of dizzying days. His life is both unraveling and coming into focus with equal force, the way it will at such times. Gilroy is a writer by trade; he s the pen behind the Bourne films. But despite a muscular directorial debut, he shows an uncommon flair for painting the banal (such as office spaces) with hushed, haunting strokes the windows of the building at night take on the glow of a cabal, after hours. Which in a way, it is.
The Manhattan law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen wants to merge with a London firm, but a six-year class action suits hovers. Billions are at stake with the case, and its key litigator (Tom Wilkinson), in the midst of a deposition, just stripped off his clothing and began to make wild pronouncements. Literally, he has gone off his meds, but the threat is bigger. And so Michael is sent. Michael is always sent. "I m not a miracle worker," he says at one point. "I m a janitor."
Even more disorienting than the film is Clooney, who plays men in control, but here plays a middle-aged man who never controlled anything. Early in the picture, a character reads off his resume, and it makes sense: He is not a partner, has been with the firm for 17 years; he will likely never be made a partner. He comes from an Irish-Catholic family of cops and went to Fordham Law; his firm is populated with graduates of Harvard Law. He has become the guy who fixes the lawyer with the worn-out soles who cleans up the client messes for fellow attorneys too busy to hassle with hit and runs.
He is dispatched to Milwaukee to rein in Arthur Edens (Wilkinson, Oscar-worthy again), and finds himself parrying against the general counsel (Tilda Swinton) of the massive chemical company his firm represents. The film bows a bit in the middle. There s a lot to take in a bit too much character development. Clayton owes a $75,000 debt on a restaurant venture that went belly-up and now the money is due, by the end of the week. He has a brother who s a cocaine addict; he has a gambling problem. But with Arthur, Michael has patience; he listens to the old man s rant about his moral complicity.
Disgust forms like black lung.
What s refreshing is that Gilroy has not made a film about a corporate activist or an amoral man who discovers his politics. Michael Clayton is more of a nostalgia act, a homage but in the best sense. It takes its cues from bare-knuckle morality plays of Sidney Lumet, who made Network and Serpico and The Verdict; in its second half, what takes over the up-is-down ambiguity of Three Days of the Condor and 70s thrillers where more is at stake than corporate intrigue.
Your soul is chipped.
If you put aside the thriller elements for a moment, however, if you ignore Clooney s movie-star wattage for a minute (and he buried it deep), if you pay more attention to the faint glimmer of shame and complicity in the eyes of so many of the characters that populate Michael Clayton well, what we have is less of a story than a picture about the world in which we live, where predatory professionalism is admired and the unadorned truth is not, and how the line between those two camps have become increasingly hard to distinguish.
But Michael Clayton he s as mad as hell and he s not going to take it any more. And so, with a sigh of exhaustion, he doesn t. He s not Peter Finch in Network if anything, he s located the opposite of madness. Wilkinson is the raving-lunatic Finch figure, the gifted double-talker who catches a glimpse of his own culpability and can not contain the shock; really, he s just a foaming-at-the-mouth version of Michael, who submerges his feelings, who comes to recognize that the business his employer is involved has darkened his soul.
But Clayton is no crusader.
He just can not take it anymore, and so more than large melodramatic scenes, Gilroy trusts the audience to find satisfaction in the rhythms of dialogue and the jutted jaw of Clooney, who fixes his eyes on a boss and does not unleash just yet. He keeps us waiting for it. So the power of a phrase, the sucker punch a word can deliver, gathers steam. We d like to reach that point, and like the best films of the 1970s, Michael Clayton pulls from the air what we re feeling now, without saying it outright. Get a baby-sitter. Finally, grown-ups get a film to call their own.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6117.
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