Michael Clayton (***½)

Posted on October 14th, 2007 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

Michael Clayton is an old-fashioned movie, which means that the movie is built on a great script, great directing, and great acting.  It is exciting with minimal special effects.  It is tense with little or no blood or gore.  It is funny without gross-out humor.  There is a hero, but he is a flawed human being.  There are strong male and female leads, but no love story.  There appears to be some type of redemption at the end, but it is of cold comfort.

George Clooney (above, right) plays the title character, who is a cleaner at a high-powered law firm.  When one of the firms big-wig clients gets dirt under their fingernails, the firm sends in Michael Clayton to clean up the mess.  He’s not a trial lawyer, he’s a fixer.  He greases the right skids, spins the right stories, smartens up the clients as to realistic expected outcomes, and then moves on to the next mess.  He’s highly paid, but not a partner, and apparently never will be given the…distasteful…nature of his specialty.  He’s a mercenary fighting for the side with the most money, and rightness and justness are left for children’s fairy tales.

And despite his high wages, Clayton is broke.  He started a bar with his brother as a partner, but his brother fell off the drug wagon and took the business with him.  Clayton also spends too much time at back-room poker games, and also funded the failing bar with loan shark money.  This pressing debt makes it very difficult for him to see that he is mortgaging his humanity for money.

His latest mess involves one of his own firms star trial attorneys, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who for the last six years has been leading the defense of one of the firms clients (a gigantic food company a la Con Agra or Archer Daniels Midland) against charges that one of their farming chemicals kills said farmers and their families, and the company knew about it and did nothing.  But Arthur has snapped his cap, stripped naked during depositions, and chased the opposition around a parking lot in nothing but his socks.

Arthur’s madness is not random, it is a breakdown brought on by the fact that while sifting through tens of thousands of documents during discovery he uncovered a report from the client’s own scientists…stating that their product will kill people…escalating the issue to executive management…and with an acknowledgments page containing the signature of the CEO.  In other words, not only the smoking gun, but the gun, the bullets, the motive, the opportunity, the blood, the body, the microbes, the fingerprints, the gunpowder residue, the security cam footage, and the confession. The signed confession.

However, all Clayton knows is that the lead counsel for their largest client has gone off his rocker, and as the fixer he needs to get him under control and not jeopardize the upcoming settlement.  However, as Clayton digs into the facts he begins to learn the truth, and the enormity of the wrongdoing manages to pierce his debt-clouded, mercenary sensibilities and give him a crisis of conscience.

Even further gone in the soul-mortgaging department is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton, above left), who is the Chief Counsel for food corporation.  Her character is a vicious dragon lady, or appears to be so, but the film allows us to see her gearing up for battle…rehearsing…nervous…unsure……alone.  In a stunning surprise for a film this major, she is kind of normal sized and kind of normal in appearance.  But when she’s fully prepared and dressed for battle she is quite formidable, as Clayton finds out.

And in this film we get to see both Clooney’s and Swinton’s characters approach the same border…the border between immoral ruthlessness and actual, pure evil.  One of them teeters at the edge, while the other pauses for only the briefest moment to ponder the line passing underfoot as they rush to the dark side.

The performances are remarkable in this film.  Clooney plays Clayton in a $400 haircut, wearing $3,000 suits, driving a $100,000 car and flashing a $1,000,000 smile.  But he has dead eyes, all his smiles have a purpose.  Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder as the woman who got it all, then wonders wtf she was thinking by wanting it in the first place, but it’s now too late to turn back and become Betty Crocker.  Tom Wilkinson inhabits crazy Arthur as a latter-day Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the courtroom.

Deserving special mention is the legendary director (and noteworthy actor) Sydney Pollack, as the law firms managing partner.  His role is small, but it is powerful, and he imbues his character with the combination of gravitas, threat, and humanity that all great CEOs have.  You can tell that he truly does care about people, but not quite as much as he cares about money and power.

Put this all together and you get a tense, exciting, wild, and enjoyable ride, well worth the visit to the multiplex.  The ending is exciting and a bit unexpected (and maybe implausible, see below for question with spoiler), and be sure to stay through the end credits to see a Clooney acting tour de force.  The minimalist credits roll in the corner of an extended, uncut scene of Clooney’s character in the back of a cab leaving the climactic finale.  As the cab crawls through New York, Clooney sits and stares and thinks for several minutes.  Much like Marlon Brando’s back in the opening scene of The Godfather or Clint Eastwood’s sneering stare in any number of his films, Clooney conveys pages of dialog and exposition by not doing much of anything except completely becoming the character in that moment.  Clooney continues to amaze, both by transcending his pretty-boy roots and showing that he truly is an actor, and by continuing to make interesting, risky, and challenging career decisions (interspersed with “Ocean’s” films…a man has to eat…and have a villa in Italy).

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Please note:  ending spoilers below — do not read further as the ending is revealed!!!!

Question About the Ending:
Can someone explain the ending to me?  There is a final confrontation between Clooney’s and Swinton’s characters where he asks her for money to go away and take the incriminating document with him.  She finally agrees, and when she does the police swoop in and arrest her and/or the CEO, as Clooney had his phone on so the cops heard everything.  However, as far as I can tell, neither Swinton’s character nor the CEO did or said anything on the call that would cause them to be arrested.  The authenticity of the report certainly hadn’t been established from a legal perspective, and Clooney merely had a copy of a copy.  Even if it were legitimate, it could fall into the legal realm of stolen intellectual property and inadmissable without further legal proceedings.  Clooney asks Swinton for money to go away and not make trouble, and she agrees.  That is the essence of corporate legal representation…make the judgement call of when it makes more sense to pay than to fight.  If anything, Clooney entrapped her into agreeing to the offer.  In any case, Mynagirl and I have discussed it quite a bit and can’t figure out what triggered the arrests.  If you know what it is, please enlighten us by posting a comment below.  Thanks!

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