Looking back at last year’s Reel Estate articles, I realize now that I spent the larger part of 2007 trashing American and Egyptian major productions, although with good reason.
For most of 2007, Egyptian cinema churned one inconsequential dud after another, getting its act together only at the very end of the year. American films, on the other hand, got serious early on, producing a glut of studies about the war on terror/aftermath of 9/11 that failed to connect with filmgoers.
The best of the last year’s American releases – “There Will be Blood, “No Country for Old Men, ” Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – succeeded in capturing the intrinsic violence of the Iraq war as well as the death of righteousness and morality in the US and elsewhere.”Michael Clayton, the latest George Clooney vehicle, belongs to the latter group, and what a terrific film it is.
The film’s virtuosity lies in the way it subtly makes a strong statement about the moral ambiguity of today’s world without preaching or offering concrete resolutions. It’s also one heck of an entertaining flick.
The title character, played by Clooney, is a washed-up fixer working for one of New York’s biggest corporate law firms. Clayton is a former criminal prosecutor who sacrifices a more respectable career for the quick cash of cleaning up the mess of his firm’s clients.
Clayton is the best at what he does. His network of contacts from years of working in the field makes it easier for him to find loopholes in the law. One of his bosses refers to him as miracle worker, but Clayton doesn’t agree.
“I’m a janitor, he tells one client, “The smaller the mess, the easier for me to clean.
Clayton’s personal life is nothing short of a wreck. He’s divorced, has a son he rarely sees, suffers from a gambling problem and has $75,000 of debts he must pay back within a week.
Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the firm’s co-founder and star lawyer, suffers a psychological meltdown that leads him to strip naked during a court hearing while representing agriculture giant U/North, the firm’s biggest client. His actions put the company’s future at stake.
U/North’s chances of settling a class action suit – where the residents of a small town accusing the company of poisonous pollution – are dented after Edens threatens to disclose the truth behind the company’s fishy business. Observing the crises closely is U/North’s legal chief executive Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton).
Crowder is a modern Lady Macbeth: A forlorn, vicious and scheming middle-aged woman concealing her spinelessness and lack of confidence behind a bland smile and an icy front. When the danger presented by Edens becomes imminent, Crowder resorts to extreme measures to save her company.
“Michael Clayton is a top-notch legal/business thriller that is also a throwback to the best examples of the genre that poured in during the 70s with the likes of “Three Days of the Condor, “The Parallax View and “Klute. The influence of Sydney Lumet’s pictures on “Clayton is too strong to ignore.
Behind the designer suits, fashionable haircut and overall slick exterior, Clayton is essentially a lonely man with a disappointing career and little to look forward to. He’s the cousin of Captain Brennan from “Q & A, Frank Serpico from “Serpico and Frank Galvin from “The Verdict. The world he inhabits is as dark, merciless and hopeless as Lumet’s.
There are no heroes in Clayton’s world. Nearly every character’s hands are tainted with dirty work. Clayton, his boss Marty Bach (played by “Condor director Sydney Pollack) and Edens are all part of a giant machine too powerful for any of them to fight.
In his directorial debut, the “Bourne scriber Tony Gilroy deserts the frantic pace of the successful action franchise for a classical, straightforward visual style. His film is character-driven; external forces or destiny don’t play any role in Gilroy’s story.
Instead, it is the characters’ failures, shortcomings and longing for an unattainable getaway portal that moves the events forward.
Gilroy’s greatest gift though is his dialogue. Crisp, sexy and incredibly smart, the dialogue is what renders the film super. Gilroy’s words are packed with condensed doses of charged emotions that build up to a great release near the end. Gilroy’s script contains arguably the best dialogue in an American film since Patrick Marbe’s “Closer (2004).
Every performer in “Clayton is at the top of his/her game. Pollack, in particular, has never shown such depth in the few acting gigs he undertook between making films. There’s a hidden sense of loss and regret his character occasionally reveals to Clayton.
Clooney is the clear star of the picture though and what a stellar performance he gives. He has transcended far beyond the poster-boy image of his early career, embarking on daring, adventurous projects like “Three Kings, “Solaris, “Good Night, and Good Luck, and many others.
Clayton is the personification of unfulfilled potentials, the kind of man who may possess the skills for greatness but never does anything about it. He is unambitious, worn-out and doesn’t care much about anything anymore. When asking Bach to place him in the proper defense squad, he declines. “You’re not as good, by the way, as you might think you are.
Clooney’s most poignant scene in the film (and perhaps his entire career) sees his character suddenly stopping his car and slowly marching towards a group of horses, standing in serenity in a vast meadow. He quietly gazes at them, touches their faces and projects his entire pain, guilt and helplessness. Clooney may not yet belong to the current acting greats (Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis and Ralph Fiennes), but he’s not that far behind.
Some critics have criticized “Clayton for its slightly upbeat ending. They, however, have missed the point Gilroy hints at with the very last memorable scene. There’s no happy ending for Clayton no matter what he does. The man lost everything a long time ago and it s almost impossible to start anew or escape his past life.
“Michael Clayton is miles away from the cheer-fest of the 90s legal dramas whose optimism and sense of possibility diminished years ago. It’s a film about characters that have lost the ability to rationalize as they are confronted by the consequences of their choices. These characters are no different than us, trapped in the daily grind of modern life, unable to break free or take control of their own lives.
Clayton may look like an intriguing character from afar, but by the end of the film, I realized that perhaps we are all Michael Clayton.