Gripping and absorbing from beginning to end, Michael Clayton is a well-crafted legal thriller. The movie isn’t perfect but it is solid all around and with the way it’s being acclaimed, it is a title to keep an eye on during awards season. This marks the first feature film debut by writer Tony Gilroy who has written the scripts to the Bourne movies and The Devil’s Advocate. Like Scott Frank did with this year’s earlier thriller The Lookout, Gilroy has made a memorable first impression as a director.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a lawyer at one of the most respected law firms in the world. He is known as the â€œfixerâ€ or the â€œjanitor.â€ When something gets messy, his firm sends him in to clean everything up. Gilroy starts his film at the end and then cuts to the beginning. The opening ten minutes of Michael Clayton closes with Michael’s car exploding in a scene with some impressive camera work by Gilroy and DP Rober Elswit (2005’s Syriana). The audience is always curious as to how Michael Clayton will work its way back to this moment. Gilroy’s well structured screenplay does a fine job of doing that by not making things overly complicated.
Director Sydney Pollack (2005’s The Interpreter) serves as supporting actor here. He plays Michael’s boss Marty Bach, one of the firm’s partners. Marty’s firm is in charge of defending a company called U-North, who specializes in agricultural products. It appears that a weed killer U-North sells is hazardous and has killed a reported 450 people. The victims of the family file a $3 billion class action law suit against U-North. The attorney assigned to the case is Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a brilliant legend of an attorney who suffers from a chemical imbalance and when off of his medication, he is capable of doing anything. That would include stripping down naked in public and running after one of the plaintiffs he is defending U-North against.
This is a huge incident that U-North representative Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia) and Michael’s firm want to resolve as soon as possible. So they turn to Michael, who has a good relationship with Arthur. When Michael first speaks to Arthur to try and find out what happened, Arthur seems to have switched sides on the case. His guilty conscience has gotten the best of him. He believes that the weed killer for U-North really is deadly and starts building a case against the company. Michael must decide whether or not to do the right thing by attacking U-North. If U-North loses the case, it would be disastrous for Michael’s firm because U-North could sue for legal malpractice. Meanwhile, Karen Crowder learns of Arthur’s intentions and brings in a couple of guys to do some ‘dirty work’ to resolve the situation.
The most noteworthy performance here is that of Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens, who owns every scene he is in. Already a fine actor with an impressive resume, this may be his best and most complex supporting role to date. Any actor could easily play Arthur the wrong way. He’s not someone who we think is completely crazy. We know he has a sickness and that there is a good human being behind his outrageous actions. As Michael, Clooney wears the same look on his face and shows the same attitude throughout the movie. It would be nice for him to show a little more range. Gilroy does do a good job of tackling Michael’s issues outside of work such as struggling with money and family issues. Sydeny Pollack doesn’t have a lot of screen time but does a solid job of bringing his character to the screen and letting the audience know what kind of person he is. The one character I had a big problem with is Karen Crowder. Tilda Swinton doesn’t convince us that she’s a cut throat bitch that will go to any length to make things disappear, even murder.
Michael Clayton is more of a screenwriter’s movie. It clocks in at an even two hours which is the textbook length to an award winning script. One would first assume that Michael Clayton is the kind of movie based on a legal novel but it is an original work by Tony Gilroy. It’s nice to know there is at least one filmmaker out there that would rather come up with his own material. With the exception of the issues with Karen, the character development is solid and the introduction to each one is masterfully introduced into the film. Michael Clayton is what you would call a slow thriller. It is not fast paced but keeps you interested right up to the resolution. The dialogue skillful is and the plot devices are nicely schemed and placed.
There isn’t a lot of action here like you’ll find in the Bourne movies. Michael Clayton takes place mostly indoors. Many scenes could come off as boring but Gilroy has just the right touch and presents each one in a compelling manner. The excellent music score by master composer James Newton Howard further helps bring out the emotional layers the movie needs to be entertaining. Gilroy’s younger brother edited the film and did an impressive job letting the storyline flow.
Michael Clayton isn’t necessarily one of my favorite films of the year, but I admired it a lot. Outside of Wilkinson’s performance, there’s nothing really outstanding or unforgettable. No scene really stands above all else, it’s just a good one followed by another. The movie is just very solid in every aspect of film making. For Gilroy, this is nothing to worry about. If this is his first film as a director, I have no doubt he will someday make a great one. When you think about how many first timers are unsuccessful in the business, Gilroy is already well ahead of the game.