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Michael Clayton

dir: Tony Gilroy
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No, it’s not the flick starring Liam Neeson about the Troubles in Ireland. And it’s not a light-hearted romp about the ethnic tensions between Greeks, Yugoslavs, Islanders and Vietnamese people living in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton.

It is, simultaneously, a film about the paths people take in order to do the unthinkable for money, and George Clooney’s shameless pandering need for another Oscar.

You already have one, pretty boy. Enough’s enough.

The title character, played by Clooney, is a fixer for a prestigious law firm. Though a lawyer himself, he never gets to step inside a courtroom anymore. All he does is try to fix situations that could damage the firm’s clients, or, for most of this film, the firm.

The film starts where it starts, with Clayton driving out to Westchester in order to calm and help out a wealthy sonofabitch who wants to avoid legal troubles for running someone over and leaving the scene of the accident. On the drive out there, the GPS display in his luxury car starts screwing up. In other words, Clayton has lost his moral roadmap. Subtle as a crowbar to the kidney. Then there’s an explosion, and the plot goes back four days in time in order to show all the events leading up to the explosion.

In case you think I’m rich-bashing, the guy’s not an arsehole for being rich: he’s an arsehole because he believes his wealth and the ‘right’ degree of lawyering should be able to get him out of any crime he’s committed. He even blames the guy he ran over for the hit-and-run. If that’s not worthy of contempt, I don’t know what is.

Over the credits, a seemingly crazed man is leaving a long, rambling voicemail message on Clayton’s service, ranting about the evil nature of the firm they both work for. Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) has gone off of his meds, and is, in a wonderfully crazed fashion, describing himself as covered in a hideous slime because he’s been shat out by the loathsome beast that is Shyster, Shonky & Hutz, or whatever the law firm they work for is called.

Arthur has been working on a case for 7 years, and has been driven mad, or madder, by it. It involves an agricultural company facing a class action law suit over a weed killer that seems to have killed a lot of people as well. U North is a billion dollar client of the law firm, and there’s no way the firm can afford to have them feeling unhappy or even a bit perturbed. When Arthur attends a deposition in front of the plaintiffs in the case, and starts taking his clothes off and screaming out his love for the main plaintiff, Anna (Merritt Wever) who’s a bit of a hick, the company and the law firm panic. The firm sends Michael to deal with him, since they’re friends and colleagues.

The head of U North’s legal arm, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), considers Arthur to be too much of a risk to their fortunes, and so is less than confident in Clayton’s abilities. She goes elsewhere for a form of help that exceeds what you’d think most company’s human resources departments will do the accounting for.

How exactly do you reconcile “ruthless, professional assassins” on your expense reports? I guess you can put it in sundries, or extraordinary expenses. I wonder if there’s a tax break if the number of kills exceeds a certain amount per financial year.

In case you’ve not cottoned on yet, Michael Clayton is a thriller, yes, but it’s a corporate thriller, so action doesn’t really play a significant role. If you’re hoping for Clooney to be jumping from Tangierian terraces, crashing through windows and killing people with knick knacks and shampoo bottles, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

The emphasis is on a tight script with crackling dialogue, and people morosely facing moral choices that their positions don’t really allow them to make. Clayton is deeply in debt, and is a recovering gambling addict, and has all sorts of problems of his own whilst these legal dramas go on around him. He works for a firm in a capacity that he no longer can tolerate. He walks around for the entire film with an expression on his face that indicates he is faintly disgusted with himself. It’s either the job or himself that he is no longer able to tolerate.

He doesn’t have the luxury of doing the ‘right’ thing, and hasn’t for a long time. His work as a fixer, janitor or bagman means he has no illusions about whether he’s on the right side of any issue or not. Arthur’s madness begins to seem less and less like madness, and more like breaking free from the self-imposed strictures people place upon themselves the more beholden they become to the Beast that is the law.

Clayton’s not really in it for the moral quandaries. He wants to do the right thing for the least noble reasons of all: personal profit and revenge against both the legal firm that he is beholden to, and the company who destroy his friend and try to destroy him.

The acting, if you can tolerate Clooney, is excellent across the board. Wilkinson has the more ‘fun’ role, but manages to ground it sufficiently so that he doesn’t just seem like the usual caricature of the mad character, though his path is still disturbing. My greatest fear was that they were going to turn him into the ranting lunatic from Network who famously bellows about being mad as hell and not wanting to take it anymore. He is mad because he has finally decided that the truth will make him free.

Swinton, who strangely won an Academy Award for her performance, is okay in her role, but she seems to be in the film for only about five minutes or so. Even with a strong performance, it doesn’t hide the substantial lack in the script as concerning the fact that her character arc would probably have been more interesting to follow than Michael’s. She travels a greater distance from loyal warrior in the corporate / legal battlefield, to someone willing to have people killed in order to safeguard her position. But I guess she doesn’t really have anywhere to go by the end of it. I guess it’s something of an interesting parallel for the two characters, but it needed more fleshing out to really make sense.

All we know of her is how sweaty and stressed out by her job she gets, that she has no life away from the company, and that she rehearses her speeches in front of the mirror. When she contemplates having Arthur ‘handled’ in a permanent fashion, her struggle seems less to be over moral or personal objections, or the need to protect her position, and more about struggling to find the right euphemisms so that she doesn’t have to feel bad about it. It’s a pretty empty characterisation.

Sydney Pollack again plays an amoral father-figure senior partner. He’s doing it every few years, to the point where I’m starting to wonder if maybe Pollack took the bar exam. It’s a small role but he plays it to perfection, with that usual mixture of Olympian distance from human concerns, and the use of affection and intimate knowledge of a person just enough so that there’s an implied threat in every gentle gesture.

It’s not a great flick, but it’s a solid one. It doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about the ruthlessness of individuals or the lengths they’ll go to in order to protect their positions of privilege. I’ve read cases of contracted killings where people have killed people they don’t know for a couple of hundred bucks. And the actual machinations of companies like Union Carbide, responsible for the Bhopal disaster, make those taken here pale into insignificance in terms of the scale and magnitude of corporate malfeasance.

The important distinction to make is that it’s not some kind of statement that the organisations themselves are to blame, in that corporations are inherently amoral in their pursuit of profits, or like it’s a mob mentality thing. It’s not the company or the firm sitting around planning death and destruction in the boardroom: it’s individuals making individual decisions for their own selfish needs. Dismissing the flick as some kind of anti-corporatist statement would be the height of laziness.

I wouldn’t recommend it to most people, since I can see them being profoundly bored by it. Clooney dials down the ‘aw shucks’ bullshit he usually perpetrates, and is pretty glum throughout, so it’s not the charismatic performance most people might hope for from him. It is, mostly, perfect for the role, though I don’t think it’s as “powerful” and as “important” as many people, critics or marketers, believe it to be.

7 times seeing those horses was really very fortuitous, wasn’t it Michael out of 10

“I'm Shiva, the God of Death.” – Michael Clayton.