Judge Jennifer Malkowski wishes she had a fixer. Maybe he could finally make that jaywalking incident disappear.
Our review of Michael Clayton (Blu-Ray), published March 3rd, 2008, is also available.
The truth can be adjusted.
With a tight script, highly atmospheric filmmaking, and remarkable performances, Michael Clayton is a film of a rare breed: a thinking person's thriller about the sobering costs of doing the right thing.
Facts of the Case
Michael Clayton (George Clooney, Syriana) is the "fixer" for a New York City law firm. His job is to make their messiest problems disappear. But just as Michael is facing some messy problems of his own, legal Hell breaks loose in his firm's biggest case. The firm's most brilliant and tenacious lawyer, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom), has been handling a class-action lawsuit against U/North, a company accused of polluting drinking water with toxic chemicals. Suddenly, Arthur has an epiphany, a crisis of conscience, and his unpredictable behavior threatens to destroy the case. U/North doesn't have a "fixer," so as Michael scrambles to understand the situation, their employee Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) is forced to make her own attempts to contain the situation.
If this plot description about a class-action lawsuit over polluted water is calling up visions of Julia Roberts going through legal documents in a low-cut tanktop, be assured that Michael Clayton is no Erin Brokovich. Though their topic is similar and they both suffer from lazy title syndrome, Michael Clayton is not a warm-hearted affair and the title character certainly lacks a plucky attitude and can-do spirit. Maybe that's because he's "a janitor," as Arthur puts it—a well-paid janitor who's been cleaning up the messes of a soul-crushing law firm for over a decade with little to show for it, thanks to a former gambling problem and an unwise investment in his brother's restaurant. Because we come into Michael's story on the eve of his breaking point, writer/director Tony Gilroy has to find a narratively economical way to convey to us the feelings of disillusionment and exhaustion that drive he and Arthur have in their actions. The method Gilroy chooses is a stunning monologue delivered by the mentally unstable Arthur that forms the film's first, and perhaps even best, scene. Accompanied by shots of the empty law firm at night—cold and haunting in its bluish light and perfect sterility—Arthur builds his carefully chosen words to an infectious crescendo, describing an epiphany he had while standing in the middle of a crowded NYC intersection:
"I'm suddenly consumed with the overwhelming sensation that I'm covered with some sort of film. And it's in my hair, in my face, and it's like a glaze, like a coating…and I had the most stunning moment of clarity. I realized, Michael, that I had emerged not through the doors of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, not through the portals of our vast and powerful law firm, but from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the poison, the ammo, the defoliant necessary for other larger, more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity. And that I had been coated in this patina of shit for the best part of my life. And the stench of it, the stain of it, would in all likelihood take the rest of my life to undo."
Never before has job dissatisfaction been so darkly poetic! But, of course, Arthur is talking about more than just his own career, as the work he and his firm have been doing for U/North comes pretty darn close to pure evil in a world short on moral absolutes. As Gilroy comments in the special features, "If you roll the movie back two years, these guys are the villains." Our realization, and Michael's, about the firm's villainy is somehow simultaneously unsettling and completely obvious. Michael's boss, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack, Tootsie), admits their wrong-doing in a manner so casual that it effectively amplifies their lack of ethics. Michael questions if Arthur might be right, and Bach retorts, "Right about what? That we're on the wrong side? This is news? This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in and I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?"
There is a lot of gritty, depressing realism along these lines in Michael Clayton, but it is nicely balanced out in the tone of the film by two stunning, almost mystical elements: one is the aforementioned poetic eloquence of Arthur's "madness," and the other involves a fantasy fiction book called Realm + Conquest that Michael's son shares with Arthur, and tries to interest Michael in. The book details a mysterious "Summons to Conquest," an assembly of a number of powerful people who know nothing of each other's intentions or allegiances. Arthur's identification with this theme inspires him to action, as the book "summons" him to do his duty, and a surreal image from this fiction also seeps into Michael's reality as he is driving through rural New York at dawn on a crucial day in his life. The book, and especially the vision Michael sees, might stretch the realism of the film too much for some viewers, but I was impressed with how much emotional resonance it injected into the story and the way Gilroy integrated it into this sterile world.
But what really makes this offbeat morality tale run are remarkable performances from Clooney, Wilkinson, and Swinton. Writing and acting are this film's main attractions, and the latter impresses just as much as the former. Clooney really sells us on this quasi-maybe-hero, even when the script fails to give us a complete enough sense of what Michael Clayton's job is really like. He carries his exhaustion and his cynicism ever so subtly right in his facial expressions, and then tempers those characteristics with a desperate desire to be hopeful that surfaces once in a while when he spends time with his son. We can see Michael struggling to be the person he is supposed to be, even when he's not so sure of that identity anymore. Trying to "talk some sense into Arthur" midway through the film, we understand that Michael is no longer sure that what he's talking is sense. Feeling his uncertainty about what role he's really playing, Arthur pushes him to do some self-examination:
Michael: "I'm not the enemy!"
Wilkinson, too, is fantastic in his role, deftly navigating the many parts of Arthur's troubled psyche. In the jailhouse, he plays the brilliant lunatic with the eyes and the gestures of the best kind of madman. When he talks to Michael's son, he's come down from his high, exhibiting both the fear and the intensity of a child.
And for one or two brief moments in the film, he suddenly embodies the intimidating lawyer he must have been before he "realized" that he was coated in fecal goo. Swinton, in turn, is perfect as Karen, a woman she describes as "a bad actor who's been badly cast in her own life." In all her nervous, determined half-competence, Karen presents a nice contrast with Michael's character, who is all talent and running low on drive. One of the best characterizations of Karen is her wardrobe, to which much attention is paid by the camera. Just like her personality, it is so meticulously (mis)calculated that its awkwardness can't help but shine through. On the commentary track, Gilroy describes Swinton as a "Halloween actor," who really uses her costuming to get into character, and reports that Karen's final outfit met with high enthusiasm from the actress.
As a final note on the film itself, if the plot points and the issues seem clear here, don't expect the same easy comprehensibility from the movie as you watch it. One of the most appealing aspects of Michael Clayton is its refusal to dumb down its story for the audience. This film demands attention and active puzzling out—not on a Mulholland Dr. level, but certainly as much so as something like HBO's series The Wire. In fact, when I saw this film in theaters with my mom, she dozed off for a crucial two or three minutes in the middle and left the theater wondering what on earth happened in the film. We're plunged into the story without being given the usual exposition on the nature of the case, or the relationships of the characters, and neither the editor nor the cinematographer linger pointedly on important details. For example, when Arthur scrawls a few words on a wall, we aren't given a dramatic four-second close-up of the text, but rather a glimpse of it as the camera tracks in another direction. With this kind of blink-and-you-miss-it style, the film rewards attentive and repeat viewers. For this reason, Michael Clayton is a film worth seeing twice, and also because the heavy issues it presents are perhaps too much to process the first time around. I don't think I understood the full implications of the film's very last shot until the second time through—and that ending so good and so troubling, like the film itself.
Technically, the presentation of Michael Clayton leaves little to be desired. Warner Bros. provides a nice, sharp transfer of the film's impressive visual style, a look Gilroy refers to as "beautiful but not pretty." After seeing his shots of the law firm and his "cold, blue, rich" color palette, I agreed with that assessment wholeheartedly. A wide array of audio and subtitle options is a nice touch, though the film has pretty sparse audio tracks, featuring a score that is atmospheric and subtle. In terms of special features, I should say that Michael Clayton strikes me as a stand-alone kind of film—one that is more hurt than helped by commentary tracks and additional scenes. Those two features are what we get here, and they do indeed hurt more than help, but just a little. The Gilroys' commentary track presents them as very thoughtful, intelligent filmmakers, but its laid back joking-around-with-family tone doesn't blend well with the somber tone of the film. Tony Gilroy offers plenty of details about the process of getting the film made at the beginning of the commentary, and the rest is a fine mix of behind-the-scenes details and analysis of the aesthetic and narrative elements. Three additional scenes totaling about five minutes round out the special features. Two are short additions to existing parts of the film: Michael talking to a local lawyer at the upstate New York estate and another that would be more of a spoiler. The third is an interesting, but a little stiff, post-coital conversation between Michael and a female lawyer from the firm he's been seeing, played by Jennifer Ehle (BBC's Pride and Prejudice miniseries). The scene is kind of intriguing, and gives Michael another scrap of a personal life, but what's most fun about it is seeing a choppy-haired, American, 21st century Elizabeth Bennett wearing nothing but a men's dress shirt and smoking pot!
Michael Clayton lives in a world in which "the truth can be adjusted," and he's the one making the adjustments. In this excellent film, we aren't offered the spectacle of watching his slick character perform these adjustments, but rather the more fascinating privilege of seeing whether he is willing to expose that truth as it is, rather than adjust it for his personal gain. This complex ethical crisis is well worth watching and is beautifully rendered by the talented cast and crew.
Guilty corporation + guilty law firm + guilty consciences = a ruling in favor of Michael Clayton.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Tony Gilroy and John Gilroy
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