Director (debut): Tony Gilroy. Mr Gilroy was scriptwriter of the ‘Bourne’ movies
The film Michael Clayton is getting many accolades from the film community. I found it a bit less wonderful than their verdict, though definitely better than most. Director Tony Gilroy brings in an account of the possible every-day corruption/risk ratio punting that is a feasible Big End of Town storyline for this corporate thriller that centres round a massive class action being brought against a decidedly questionable agribusiness.
George Clooney as Michael Clayton is, of course, wonderful. Think of his character in Syriana, then morph that character into an equally complex, though slightly less physical man in a large Manhattan law firm.
Clayton (Clooney) plays a corporate fix-it guy who is attached to the mighty law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. Clayton has a hot potato on his hands in the shape of KBL’s star litigator, bi-polar Arthur Eden who is refusing to take his medication. The case to which Arthur is attached is a three billion dollar lawsuit against the above-mentioned U/North, an agribusiness manufacturer of a questionable (carcinogenic) insecticide that is servicing vast portions of the North American farming community. A negative outcome for ‘U/North’ could bring both the agribusiness firm and Kenner, Bach & Ledeen tumbling down.
Were Clooney to be a ‘fix-it’ man in a Tarantino movie we would be watching him cutting inconvenient corpses into little pieces, dissolving them in bleach and flushing them, traceless into the ocean. In Michael Clayton we are made aware that his usual gigs are in the realm of ‘managing’ the predicaments of very wealthy and/or influential characters at 3am who have been the hit and runners in hit and runs − or similarly unexotic problems. These clients are Kenner, Bach and Ledeen's life-blood and the clients expect KBL to be able to smooth away these problematic bits of life (preferably through clever manipulation of the law) with a minimum of fuss to themselves or their interests. Clayton, apparently, is a bit of a star in this niche.
Actor Tom Wilkinson playing bi-polar litigator Arthur Eden outshines Mr Clooney in this movie. An embarrassing breakdown near film’s beginning reveals that Mr Eden has switched sides, and the mania on which he is riding high has him set on cleansing his soul and bringing justice to the families of the many cancer victims he feels have been the consequence of U/North’s carcinogenic products. The heavy-weights at Kenner, Bach and Ledeen are onto this and they are uncomfortable … to say the least.
Tilda Swinton, as U/North legal attorney Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton also puts in a remarkable performance. Far from being a vehicle for that unearthly beauty she brought to the screen as the White Witch in Chronicles of Narnia and the androgynous angel in Constantine, in Michael Clayton she puts on a few pounds, dyes her hair a believable red and plays a woman more frightening than any witch or fallen angel put together. Karen Crowder has broken through the glass ceiling and she has no intention of being accused of being some ‘girl’ in her firm’s time of crisis. She hyper-ventilates while organising a hit to save the arse of her firm. She goes through a similar process – throwing up and sweating profusely in the company toilet – whenever the going gets tough. Her performance really makes you wonder just who is the maddest rattler of them all.
I guess what makes Michael Clayton both difficult and so stand-out is the compounding complexity in the movie as it is revealed through Clayton. His dilemmas start with the everyday and then, slowly and surely, blow-out to the criminal.
The slow and steady pace of the film is projected through the exhaustion of a character who has too much going on and who, you feel, is functioning on stress adrenalin and little more. Director Tony Gilroy somehow makes us feel his exhaustion rather than just recognise it, and I’m not so sure that this approach has done his film justice.
Clayton has a loser-brother who has somehow squandered Mr Clayton’s retirement money (Bro probably drank it). Clayton himself has a gambling problem that has got him into moderately deep financial trouble ... we are made aware that he has beaten this problem before, but that his brother’s behaviour has pushed him back into the fast lane. We know, too, that Clayton has a failed relationship and a bright son who causes him feelings of guilt with every rushed encounter. He also has an aging parent and siblings who criticise him for not doing his share. As 'Mr Fix-It', he tends to be called in at 3am to do his stuff, and his 'stuff' is not the sort of thing you can explain easily in a sentence. Clooney, playing Clayton as a man who is functioning through the blear of exhaustion and misunderstanding, permeates the film. The worn out, dead pan complexity of his character is well tuned. We can identify but, for me, it may not have been the best way to bring this movie in.
Michael Clayton is well acted, the story-line is clever and the line up of actors impressive. There are stand-out moments. A favourite is when the very ‘under siege’ Michael Clayton is talking to his son. They’ve just left a family gathering where the prodigal brother unexpectedly shows up and apologises emotionally to Michael. Driving away, Michael says to his son that he knows Junior is a winner and will never be one of those unfortunates onto whom life just seems to dump. You know that Clayton is not referring to his brother but to himself and his similarly over-worked and ethically-challenged work colleagues.
The end and beginning are the best things about this movie. The middle is pretty good too! For a movie that I didn’t get right into, I must admit that its subtlety has stayed with me for quite some time. I’m appreciating it better with every new consideration.
Decide for yourself.
And Henry's readers are cordially invited to 10 Years of Gallery 4A from the collection of Dr Dick Quan at the Asia-Australia Arts Centre. The exhibition features the works of Angelo Filomeno, Shaun Gladwell, Wang Guang-Yi, Peter Graham, Ken Kagami and Kate Rohde.
image: Ken Kagami Dinner 2007 courtesy the artist and Dr Dick Quan Collection
10 Years of Gallery 4A is curated by Lisa Corsi, from the Collection Dr Dick Quan. Until 1 December, 2007.
Gallery 4A-Asia Australia Arts Centre
181-187 Hay Street
Sydney NSW 2000
tel: +61 2 92120380
fax: +61 2 92810873
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