Clooney could lead cast to Oscar gold in murky legal drama
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Cast: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton
After a long, hot summer filled with Transformers, pirates and superheroes, it may finally be time for some honest-to-goodness Academy Award contenders. Michael Clayton, the new legal drama starring George Clooney, has all the earmarks of a year-end, award-bait front-runner. This deadly serious film marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy (scribbler of all three Bourne films) and boasts the sort of script that actors let go of when someone either pries it from their cold dead fingers or hands them an Oscar--whichever comes first.
Clooney headlines as Michael Clayton, a self-styled “janitor” for a high-powered New York law firm. Clayton is a shadowy sort of shyster, the kind of guy who knows all the legal loopholes and only gets called in when things have gone very wrong. He doesn’t take cases to court, he doesn’t negotiate; but he’s an expert at cleaning up the messes people (rich people, anyway) get themselves into. Clayton is summoned by his law firm when Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom), a friend and fellow litigator, goes nuts while negotiating a multimillion-dollar class action lawsuit.
Arthur’s meltdown is motivated partially by a voluntary vacation from his mood medication and partially by the overwhelming guilt he’s starting to feel defending his corporate client. The petrochemical giant he’s defending, U/North, is accused of killing dozens of people with one of their products. Naturally, they don’t want to admit guilt or pay out any money. The question is, how far will these people go to protect their interests when their lead attorney goes rogue?
Unfortunately, a strict description of the plot doesn’t do this film much justice. It’s not so much about the mechanics as it is about the characters. The film is really probing into the lives of its three main litigators: the slickly amoral Clayton, the deeply conflicted Edens and a third in-house lawyer for U/North played by Tilda Swinton (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). Try to imagine the pressure put on people dealing with a $6 billion lawsuit and you’ll get a feel for what this film is aiming at. This isn’t some simpleminded drama that just sits around waiting for its anti-hero to grow a conscience and turn crusader. The people in this strata of society don’t deal with good and evil, they deal with sums of money.
“I’m not the kind of guy you kill,” says our titular character at one point. “I’m the kind of guy you buy off.” It’s not an inaccurate statement. We’re never quite sure, even at the end, how much of a hero our Michael is. Thankfully, Gilroy provides Clooney with a rich background on which to build his complex character. We see quite a bit of Clayton’s private life, and we know it isn’t all that great. He has a decent relationship with his young son, whom he sees every other weekend; but he clearly doesn’t quite connect with the kid. He’s a gambler, possibly inveterate. And he owes a hell of a lot of money to a loan shark over a bad business venture with his alcoholic brother.
By film’s end, there’s no doubt that Michael Clayton is a fine piece of cinema--but it’s not for every taste. For starters, it takes a while to figure out what kind of film Michael Clayton really is. It’s not a courtroom drama, and it’s not quite a legal thriller. Those expecting the easily digestible melodrama and occasional car chases of John Grisham may be bored by the thoughtful, methodical pacing of this film. I can’t recall a film in recent memory that spends so much time watching characters think. Despite touching on the evils of corporate America, it isn’t a message movie either. Those waiting for the stand-up-and-cheer antics of Erin Brockovich will still be waiting as the credits quietly roll.
Most of the film is set during a four-day flashback. It’s not an easy narrative, and it requires a decent amount of attention to work through. But Gilroy’s smartly layered script never falters. The dialogue--whether it’s lawyers discussing settlement terms or Clayton’s young son explaining the plot of a fantasy novel--comes across as incredibly natural. Each character feels fully formed, and the topflight cast certainly helps with that. Even Swinton, whose character has the least amount of screentime, leaves a strong impression--ruthless, yet always on the knife-edge of a sweaty panic attack. What emerges over the course of 119 minutes is a restrained, classically shot character drama that falls in line well with the murky thrillers of the ’70s like The Parallax View, ... And Justice for All and The China Syndrome.