Saturday, October 13, 2007

Adam's affadavit on MICHAEL CLAYTON

It's official. I'm a Tony Gilroy fan now.
Michael Clayton, his latest script (and his directing debut) is so smart, it shows you the climax at the very beginning of the movie. And yet it doesn't spoil the ending. There's things going on that you don't yet know. Wheels turning.
Just like what's always going on with the title character.
Michael Clayton is a fixer. In the legal world, this means he's the firm's go-to guy when things need cleaned up. He's the guy who shows up when you have no plays. He's the lawyer of last resort. And he's good at his job. Great, even.
You first meet him racing to the home of some rich asshole in Westchester County outside of New York City. The rich guy has just hit someone with his Jaguar and left the scene of the accident. Being a rich asshole, he certainly can't be to blame for any of this. It's that dumb schmuck's fault for getting hit. Yeah, that's it.
Clayton gives the rich guy the skinny, which he's not going to like, and leaves. He's pissed about something, and it shows.
Then, his car blows up.

Skip back four days. Clayton's in trouble. He's in hock for loans his brother took out on a restaurant the two owned together. He's selling the fixtures and booze, trying to scrape enough up to pay the loan sharks.
He's unhappy at his job because, since he's the fixer, he has no equity in the firm. Things go south, say there's a big merger, and he's out on his ass since he has no official position. The restaurant was supposed to be his safety net, and now it's the noose with which he's apparently hung himself to the tune of seventy-five thousand dollars.
His oldest friend at the firm, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has a break down at a deposition for the class action suit he's been working on. He confesses his love to one of the plaintiffs, strips naked, and chases the plaintiffs around in the parking lot.
Clayton is sent to Wisconsin to grab Arthur and get him back under control. Turns out that Arthur is bipolar and off his meds.
It also turns out that he's totally right about their big client being responsible for ungodly environmental damage that's continuing to kill people exposed to their defoliant, since it seeps right into the groundwater.
The corporation has a lot to lose in the lawsuit (the subjects of the class action are asking for $3,000,000,000 (That's three BILLION dollars...much cheddar, even for a major agri-corp). Their general counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), is looking to prove herself and maybe move up into the board room like her predecessor Don Jeffries (Ken Howard). If she can somehow settle the case for a manageable amount, she just might. She's got a problem, though.
Arthur has a memo, the proverbial smoking gun, that could blow the case right out of the water.

Where Michael Clayton shines most is in the performances of its three principals. Clooney, Wilkinson and Swinton are fantastic in it, as are Michael O'Keefe and Sydney Pollack in supporting roles.
The roles are classic movie star fodder, and allow each of the principals room to shine in their own unique way. Clayton is calm and collected, even in the face of peril. Edens is manic and obsessed, but fully on the side of angels now. Crowder is mannered to the point that she rehearses every word that's going to come out of her mouth before she leaves her house every morning.
All three roles offer plenty of star moments, and room for character as well. And, being that all three are fine actors in their own rights, they take advantage of that room to give mannered and deep performances.

Where Michael Clayton succeeds without any effort to shine is its smart, tightly-written script. The script is nearly transparent, fading into the background and letting the actors carry the material. There's no snappy dialogue, no forced patter. Everything feels natural and believable.
Lately, Gilroy's become a fairly adept writer. Who knew that the man behind the scripts for The Cutting Edge, The Devil's Advocate and Armageddon was going to churn out fare like the Jason Bourne movies and Michael Clayton? But he turns out to be a pretty damn good director his first time out. It's not a flashy movie at all. He sets up shots in similar ways to how Paul Greengrass framed the last two Bourne movies, but without the constantly swaying handheld effect. Things feel live, on the fly, very cinema verite.
The pacing is relentless as well. Gilroy and company trimmed out all the fat, giving you only the moments you need to see when you need to see them. You aren't dragged into minutia. Everything counts, be it Clayton reaching out to his estranged son or the final confrontation.
The ending is satisfying in a way few films are any more. The redemption that Clayton earns for himself is hard fought and comes at a great price. But the open-ended conclusion leaves much of the pending justice up to the viewer to decide and imagine. There's no feel-good moment or group hug or triumphant slow-clap. Just a lonely cab ride in the only direction that matters: away.
I'm not certain that Michael Clayton is going to be huge come awards time, but it's certainly a movie worthy of a view or two on the big screen (and an eventual DVD purchase).

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