Michael Clayton (2007) dir. Tony Gilroy
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
Buyer beware. Michael Clayton may not be what you expect. It certainly wasn’t what I expected. And that doesn’t necessarily make it better. “Michael Clayton” is not a corporate thriller, but a character film, about a ‘fixer’ for a corrupt law firm that is forced to reexamine his life when he discovers his firm is complicit in a class action law suit of corporate malfeasance.
In the first few moments we are parachuted into a series of scenes that do not make any sense – Michael Clayton (Clooney) a disheveled looking lawyer appearing to play his last penny on a hand of poker; Clayton seeing a client late in the evening and acting aloof – Clayton seeing his car get blown up. There’s an apathy to him, which we will come to learn about as the film then flashes back to 4 days before.
We then get the full backstory of Clayton’s failed life. Clayton has sunk his savings into a restaurant business which was financed with some shady money. The restaurant has gone under and now Clayton is scrambling to pay back his lenders. Meanwhile, Clayton’s boss and mentor Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has gone mad and stripped down in the middle of a deposition. This has angered and alarmed his clients U-North – a giant conglomerate who is in the middle of a large class action law suit. Clayton is sent in by his unscrupulous partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) to “fix” the situation. Amid a severe depression Clayton is forced to reconcile his debt, his job and his family life, all of which are threatened by the corporate henchmen watching over his shoulder.
Tony Gilroy is the writer behind the Bourne films. While those films are direct and to the point, “Michael Clayton” takes some time before it makes it point. In fact, it isn’t until the last scene of the film, where I finally realized what it is. It looks and sounds like a political thriller – replete with middle aged men and women wearing cool suits and talking on their cell phones a lot, there’s the quiet but percussion heavy James Newton Howard soundtrack and the poster tagline “truth can be adjusted”. Unfortunately the film isn’t about truth, or lack thereof, nor the mystery surrounding the nefarious actions of an unethical corporation. It’s about Michael Clayton and all the pressures that surround him – including his failed restaurant business, his job, his alcoholic brother and his neglected son. The elements of the corporate story which the film is marketed as are laid out in a 5min conversation with Tom Wilkinson’s character when we first meet him. Other than that there is very little revealed in that subplot story.
I must admit I was waiting for the intrigue to start, but it never does. The film is about Clayton. As mentioned he is a broken man, disillusioned with the state of his job. He once had aspirations to be a lawyer with ethics and pride, but as his boss Marty Bach says, he found his niche – to be a fixer. This brings me to another problem I had with the film. We never get to see how good Clayton is at being a fixer. We never get the establishing scene where he “cleans” up the mess. I imagine this could mean planting evidence, bribing people, maybe even threatening or killing people. We are told of Clayton’s talents, but we never get to see it.
The arc of his character is well thought out and executed. There’s a moment late in the film where Clayton’s holding a paper in his hand while talking to Bach. What he does or doesn’t do with this piece of paper is a turning point in the film, the significance of which is only referenced casually at the end. The movie then builds to a wonderful climax that lingers with you after the film. In fact, the final shot will likely keep you in your seats.
The most frustrating aspect is the fact that Gilroy tries too hard not be direct. He plays the pronoun game in virtually every conversation - referring to “this” or “that” without establishing what “that” is. In hindsight, the title gives away the film, so I really shouldn’t be surprised that it wasn’t a thriller but a character film. But when I saw the final credits and saw that Sydney Pollack, George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Anthony Minghella were Executive Producers, I said, “ahhh, that explains it”. There’s some major award-winning talent here that probably wanted to win some more awards. Enjoy.
P.S. I seem to be in the minority compared to the current critical opinion. Please let me hear your thoughts.