Monday, January 28, 2008

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton (2007) directed by Tony Gilroy.


We've seen a lot of legal thrillers. It's always obvious from the outset who to root for; stuff like Erin Brockovich may entertain, but the heroes aren't always so cut and dried or squeaky clean. The Insider was another good film, with a less likeable protagonist, but it's rare that a movie goes so far as to give us a Michael Clayton. George Clooney plays the titular role, as a fixer for a big law firm who doesn't seem to get much happiness out of life. He's divorced and his kid lives in a fantasy novel, he's a poker table gambler who doesn't win often, and he has to deal with entitled rich monsters who want him to make it all better when they crush one of the little people, who have the temerity to want justice.
The story is told in flashback. We meet Clayton when he is called on to cover for a vacationing lawyer. He's supposed to be a "miracle worker," but he describes himself as a janitor. Cleaning up other people's mess. A big mess gets created by lawyer Arthur Eden, played by Tom Wilkinson, when he has a mental breakdown during a deposition, and Clayton is called in for damage control by his boss, Sydney Pollack. Like his role in Eyes Wide Shut, he is utterly believable as a powerful man who tells people how it is.
In the process of cleaning up Arthur's mess, Michael nearly loses his own son, begins to see the method to Arthur's madness. He may be unhinged, but he certainly has his faculties. He's also up against Tilda Swinton as the lawyer from the company Arthur was supposed to be defending. She's as ruthless as any of them, and has her own fixers. There's a particular clever scene that intercuts with her perfect performance at a deposition with her rehearsing at home while she dresses, that captures the character. Tilda Swinton has always been one to watch, from her childlike role in Thumbsucker to the wounded woman in The War Zone and the desperate mother protecting her wayward son in The Deep End. Here she stands alongside some major players and even surpasses them.
Like Gone Baby Gone, the film does not go where you expect it will go. There are men beyond redemption, and sometimes it takes a devil to do a good deed, for the wrong reasons, for justice to be done. The final shot shows Clayton in a cab to nowhere, being eaten alive from the inside. Clooney has given us a real and unsavory character who deserves to have a movie named after him.

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