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Our quintuplet of Best Picture nominee reviews continues today with Tony Gilroy’s sharp, solid, and solemn corporate thriller Michael Clayton, a film that, in any other year, would stand a good chance at some awards love, but in this exceptional year seems almost destined to leave the Kodak theatre empty handed.
It’s interesting, too, that the connection between the Academy and business is often closer than we think. It’s a pretty widely held belief that Russell Crowe’s Oscar for Gladiator over Tom Hanks superior turn in Cast Away was at least partly motivated by the need to crown a new major movie star. Hanks was already sitting on two Best Actor trophies, and one more wouldn’t make much difference to his star power. But Russell Crowe being billed as ‘Academy Award winner Russell Crowe’… that carries a little more box office heft. Ditto Mark Whalberg’s nomination for The Departed, which is not to suggest that he didn’t deserve it, but that the nomination could just as easily have gone to any number of brilliant actors in the film (Alec Baldwin, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon). But giving the sturdy Whalberg the title of ‘Academy Award nominee Mark Whalberg’ is good for business (trust me, you’ll see that phrase in upcoming trailers for The Happening).
But it’s not so often that the Academy uses their spotlight to illuminate a screenwriter-turned-director (and again, this isn’t to suggest it isn’t deserved), and you can rest assured that Tony Gilroy has been crowned a new star in Hollywood.With all that in the background, what a marvelous surprise Michael Clayton is. Taught, straight-forward, solid filmmaking, it has justifiably been compared to Sidney Lumet’s early work. The story follows corporate clean up man Michael Clayton (picture Pulp Fiction‘s Winston Wolfe working for a law firm instead of Marsellus Wallace) whose friend and fellow lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has a mental breakdown after defending U-North, a pesticides company, in a huge civil suit for the past six years. George Clooney’s Clayton is called in to minimize the damage, get the manic-depressive Edens back on his meds, and assure the clients that they are still in good hands. But Edens proves difficult to handle, and as the stakes escalate, Clayton finds first his friend and then himself in danger, thanks to the actions of U-North’s chief in-house council, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton).
The story is fairly simple, though its execution is anything but. Gilroy’s lean screenplay bounces around a bit, opening with an attempt on Michael’s life and bouncing back four days to the beginning of his involvement. This gives us a marvelous sense of being dropped into the middle of a story that’s been going on for years, and even ends with a similar sense that these characters continue on. Gilroy trusts us to catch up with the plot, like learning that Clayton has recently used most of his savings to open up a bar with his brother, only to have it go belly up and leave him in tremendous debt to shady people. We learn that he is a divorced father without anyone ever saying it, and we clearly understand his position within the labyrinthine law firm that pays his salary just through the flow of everyday conversation. How easily we forget what it feels like to be trusted by a smart writer and director and not be talked down to.
These are the things that Gilroy brings to the table as a writer and director. But perhaps the best thing he does is to stand back and let his actors do their thing, because he has assembled a trio of great performances. What can you say about George Clooney? Is there any other A-list actor doing as much to keep intelligent studio films on the release schedule? His strongest attributes as an actor are his charm and confidence, qualities that serve him well in purely commercial films. But, much like Bruce Willis, he’s at his best when stripped of these attributes, as he is here. There are still shades of them (they’re carved too clearly into his chin, I think), but they’re undermined by his uncertainty, his silences, and the slump of his shoulders. When he describes himself as a janitor and not a lawyer, everything about his demeanor confirms that he really believes this, and is, in fact, resigned to it. And for this reason, his character is compelling because, as the screws are tightened in both his personal and professional life, we’re not really sure how he’s going to react.
Right alongside Clooney are Wilkinson and Swinton (all three are Oscar nominees). Wilkinson is stepping right into the shoes of James Cromwell as the go-to character actor for elderly gentleman. These are normally restrained, dignified performances. What a revelation it is to see him cut loose in a performance that recalls Peter Finch’s brilliant turn as Howard Beale in Network. He manages to play a man who’s off his rocker for most of his screen time, but in a few key scenes demonstrates a rational mind like a steel trap. The plot hinges on the believability of his performance, and he brings it off with aplomb. But his is the more showy supporting role, and given the option, I’d have given his Oscar nod to Robert Downey, Jr. for Zodiac.
Tilda Swinton, on the other hand, is given very little to work with in terms of the script, and fleshes the character out with astonishing skill. I’m not sure I ever really appreciated Tilda Swinton, but I came home and bumped The Deep End up to the top of my Netflix que, because she is brilliant here. Watch the juxtaposition in her performance between her preparation for an interview and the interview itself. Gilroy smartly calls attention to this by intercutting the two scenes. As she gets dressed and rehearses what she’s going to say, Swinton is a wreck. In front of the camera, or, later, stockholders, she is composed and well spoken. But her saucer-shaped eyes are constantly taught, almost trembling, with the weight of her responsibility. As her position gets worse, she reminded me more and more of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed, internalizing all the mounting pressure like a coiled spring. She is what saves the movie from the simplistic moralizing of something like Eric Brockovich, where we are never given any insight into the usually faceless bad guy. In her, I saw someone who was promoted too early to a job she wasn’t ready for, who can’t see any way out except the route that she’s taking, and she hates it. All of this is in her eyes more than the script, and to me she’s really the standout performance in the whole film.
I don’t want to gush about Michael Clayton too much. It doesn’t rise to the artistically challenging levels that There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men do. What it is a somber, intelligent, well-told film, and that’s rare enough that it deserves to be highlighted when it comes along. Tony Gilroy is a major talent as a director (he’s already landed Julia Roberts and Clive Owen for his next project), and Clayton demonstrates skill as a screenwriter that his previous credits (The Devil’s Advocate, the Bourne movies, among others) only hinted at. He tells a good story, but has more on his mind than just that. Ultimately, I think he wants to remind us that the fate of the world rests on the amoral shoulders of men like Michael Clayton, and I found that both moving and profound, if not entirely original.