Every so often, Hollywood will be kind to those of who think we’re going mad when we see fare such as Transformers or Spider-Man 3. Luckily, 2007’s Michael Clayton was a film that showed Hollywood doesn’t always miss the forest for the trees, in a year that produced some of the best studio films of the decade.
Michael Clayton captures the spirit of the Sydney Lumet-Francis Ford Coppola films of the 1970s with fresh energy. The film’s story of a morally corrupted man who’s fighting to regain his soul proves just as important as its intricate plot.
George Clooney, who plays the eponymous character without the hipster charm of Danny Ocean, works at one of New York’s most prestigious law firms, Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. He’s the firm’s “janitor,” sweeping up the messes of the firm’s highest priced, effete clients. (He’s the type of guy that Larry Craig and Eliot Spitzer should have called.) When he’s called in one day to clean up the mess of one of the firm’s own lawyers, Arthur Edens, Clayton becomes wrapped up in a controversial case, involving multinational, agricultural conglomerate U-North. U-North’s general counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) exerts pressure on Clayton, and his law firm, to reign in the mentally deteriorating Edens, before the wrongful death lawsuit in which her company is embroiled is lost.
From this premise, writer-director Tony Gilroy (writer of the last-two Bourne films) conducts an intelligent, taut thriller that examines the morality of every one of its key players. Clooney disappears behind the world-weary eyes of his character and gives the best performance of his career. He exudes the disillusionment of a man who knows his choices have got him to where he is, and knows that it’s no one’s fault but his own. Tom Wilkinson, who plays the manic-depressive Edens, is also brilliant. His character’s metaphysical epiphany in the film is on par with that of Peter Finch’s Howard Beale in Network. He’s a man who realizes that he’s contributed to suffering in his life, and he wants to atone. His character gives Michael Clayton the opportunity to do the same with his own life.
Swinton, who won this year’s supporting-actress Oscar for her role, is very impressive as the dispassionate, detached villain of the picture. Her character’s obsession with detail, appearance, and efficiency mirrors the duplicitous nature of corporations and CEOs. The film’s one scene of violence parallels the insidious aspects of business that her character represents. Still, the film belongs to Clooney and his intriguing character. He keeps the audience tuned into every aspect of his Clayton and the story, leading ultimately to the film’s satisfying conclusion.
Technically, the film is a great work of minimalism. The cinematography by Robert Elswitt relies on muted, understated colors to express the cold, disconnected environment. He also employs the same creative compositions that won him this year’s Oscar for his work on There Will Be Blood. The editing’s very smooth, keeping the proceedings moving at the pace of an exciting thriller while keeping the meat on the most important scenes. The film also utilizes an understated soundtrack by James Newton Howard that subtly hits all the high, dramatic points of the film. Sydney Pollack also gives a great supporting performance as the morally flexible Marty Bach.
The Blu-ray picture is not the best I have seen, but it’s still very good. There’s a considerable amount of film grain during some of the film’s darker scenes. But overall the picture achieves the state of the art beauty that is Blu-ray, especially during the better lit sequences. The film’s soundtrack is also extremely clean and loud, which is very good since the film is mostly dialogue. The only extras on the disc are a commentary by Tony Gilroy and the editor, John Gilroy, and three deleted scene that were excised because of their ill fit in the film.
Michael Clayton is a definite must-see, and perhaps must-own, for anyone who enjoys mature, intelligent cinema with something to say.