Richard Braddock 28/09/2007
I think we'd all agree that the film industry is stagnating to a certain degree. It has been for years. By definition, the studios only commission flicks that follow set codes and conventions that they know will pretty much guarantee them success. The epitome of this is ANY film with Adam Sandler in. In this case our checklist would read: 1)dopey protagonist with a heart of gold 2)his struggle as a result of his good nature/bad luck 3)several moments where the viewer thinks the plot can only end in the worst possible way 4)concluding triumph against that adversity. It's boring. It's stale. It's occasionally humorous, but it doesn't break any boundaries, because it doesn't dare to. Now, I'm not saying that Michael Clayton is a film that shatters the expectations of Hollywood or creates itself a sub-genre, but It's a breath of fresh air from some of the turgid action/dramas that dare to change absolutely nothing from a formula laid out almost since the dawn of cinema.
George Clooney plays the title character in this satisfying crime drama revolving around a Michael Clayton, an ex lawyer and the current “fixer” of a huge American law firm “Kenner, Bach & Ledeen”. As one would expect from a film named after the pivotal character, we get to see a great deal more character based drama than in most other films. For example, while we're constantly reminded that Clayton is a solid and irreplaceable cog in his law company, his personal life is the antithesis of this. He has a son and is separated from the mother, a gambling problem, and a mountain of debt left by a failed restaurant business he began with his estranged brother. The contrast with his work life and the effects these problems have on him help us feel an enormous amount of empathy for Clayton, because we can all relate to having a less than perfect life.
The main plotline runs in parallel to his issues, because as the “fixer” he is tasked with keeping under control the manic depressive Arthur Edens, a senior partner of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen whose psychosis seems to stem from the guilt of defending a morally bankrupt client while his own life fell from grace. Unfortunately Edens is hellbent on destroying the case for his own conscience, and his actions and erratic behaviour put them both in danger. While the plot is sufficient to carry everything through with a fair amount of action and pace, the lack of detail exposed at times does border on the frustrating as we attempt to string together the essence of the story.
Michael Clayton works because instead of taking every opportunity to bombard the viewer with a traditional “against all odds” philosophy, it's sufficiently well written to give the impression that the depth of the cover-up and the moral implications are infinitely more dangerous and overwhelming to Clayton than the forces that come to stop him. Indeed, it benefits greatly from lacking the gloss and faultlessness of a film like “The Bourne Identity”. Ironically, writer and director Tony Gilroy was also the screenwriter of the first two Bourne films.
Tilda Swinton's performance as a fragile, yet cold-blooded member of corporate America is particularly memorable. Whilst her actions demonstrate that she's essentially the ruthless “baddie” of the film, most scenes also show a mentally weak and indecisive side to her. Instead of detracting from the story, this allows Michael Clayton to play out in a much less linear fashion, with a narrative that seems to progress in a more realistic fashion than most.
This isn't to say that Clooney doesn't do a brilliant job playing a character that it's truly hard not to empathise with. Credit must go to him for giving Michael Clayton a life of his own, a million miles away from Danny Ocean.
Ultimately Michael Clayton is a rewarding and engaging thriller that requires a fair level of concentration to get the most from. Don't go expecting something to redefine the genre, but by the same token, you should be suitably impressed with this drama with a twist.