“I’m not the guy you kill. I’m the guy you buy off.” – Michael Clayton
Michael Clayton is the kind of slow burn that only makes its way to theaters at this time of year. It’s the kind of film whose suspense comes from silence, whose dialogue is first-rate, and whose acting is blade sharp. The story is elaborate and demands the utmost of patience, and the final confrontation is one that won’t soon be forgotten – particularly if you’re George Clooney at the height of awards season.
Clooney is the title character in a relatively subdued, but very serious performance. Clayton works for a prestigious law firm and is a fixer (or “janitors,” as they often refer to themselves). He bends the law as necessary to protect the firm’s clients. The higher on the pole you are, the better the treatment you get. This comes into play when Clayton’s good friend, Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), goes off the deep end mentally. Edens has spent the last six years putting together a case to defend uNorth, a company whose pesticides have been accused of causing cancer and death. The deeper Michael gets, the larger the corporate interest and danger that they will do whatever it takes to protect their company.
Corporate distrust is only one of many themes that writer/director Tony Gilroy touches upon. Michael is haggard and worn from his stressful occupation, and his home life is spotty at best. On the other side is Karen Crowder (Swinton), a seemingly cool and calm spokesperson for uNorth who actually, in some of the film’s most personal scenes, rehearses exactly what she’ll be saying to the board members for hours on end. Above all is truth, of which we can all pretty much universally agree is lacking these days.
Gilroy directs with the kind of patience and precision that he demands from his audience. Each scene contains a building block, ultimately leading up to one of the most memorable verbal showdowns of the decade. Gilroy’s dialogue is fantastic; full of verve and surprisingly cunning in its zingers. It avoids taking potshots at corporate America politics and instead crafts a story around the kind of scenario we read about in the papers far too often. Never does the film feel anything other than authentic. This is, in large part, due to a career-defining performance from George Clooney. Looking messy and dead tired, Clooney inhabits the role to perfection. The finale speaks for itself, but Clooney shines in even the smallest of scenes as he deals with all walks of life. Tilda Swinton is equally superb is a role of great depth and cold calculation.
Michael Clayton, much like Syriana and Babel, is a picture that stipulates patience and restraint in its viewers. The dots connect, and the payoff is well worth the wait. There’s been a serious lack of intelligent, adult-minded films this year, and Michael Clayton is bound to be remembered in the coming months. This is first-rate filmmaking through and through, and one of the year’s finest.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 119 Minutes
Rating: R for language including some sexual dialogue.
Theatrical Release: October 5, 2007 (Limited) / October 12, 2007 (Wide)
Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Written by: Tony Gilroy
Cast: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Pamela Gray, Jack Fitz