The Reeler


October 4, 2007

Michael Clayton

Gilroy's moral thriller mimics skins of '70s mentors without attaining their soul

"I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor,” Manhattan lawyer and in-house “fixer” Michael Clayton (George Clooney) tells a frantic upper-crust client involved in a late night hit-and-run early in Tony Gilroy’s loathsome Michael Clayton. It is a transparently self-conscious assessment: Despite his entrepreneurial grooming and attire, Clayton fancies himself a disenfranchised, blue collar mug. His droopy and dour countenance, punctuated by a perpetually world-weary stare, all but cries out, “I’m no angel!” He’s a rusty cog in the capitalist machine, a ghost of a man in desperate need of redemption, or a Hollywood writer/director’s version of such (in this case, the pious, heavy hand of Bourne series scribe Gilroy will do).

Cue the first-act appearance of three prophetic horses, who apparently beckon Clayton to an upstate New York mount to receive their allusive, equine wisdom. Loosely translated, what the horses need to tell him is, “Dude, there’s a bomb in your car.” And so there is: BOOM! goes Clayton’s Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The explosion occasions an angelic fade-to-white and a flashback entitled “Four Days Earlier,” when Clayton’s mitigating knowledge of agro-chemical company U/North’s shady billion dollar lawsuit was but a speck on the horizon, and that blustery ham Tom Wilkinson (as Clayton’s bipolar confidant Arthur) had yet to show up and compare himself to Shiva.

Such is the entirely unconvincing timbre of spiritual discourse in which Michael Clayton engages. But what fascinates most is Gilroy and company’s seemingly whole-hearted belief in the bill of goods they’re selling: a dull, anti-capitalist screed made by fervent capitalists. It’s also a solemn gob of New Age hooey, as those hilltop steeds and Realm and Conquest (the in-film fantasy novel read by Clayton’s son and passed around between characters like divinely begotten writ) all-too-conspicuously show.

The presence of Sydney Pollack and Steven Soderbergh as producers (and Pollack as performer) goes a way toward explaining the film’s ultimately misguided Cinema-of-the-'70s fetishism, what with its grave, grainy imagery (courtesy of cinematographer Robert Elswit), strikingly subdued flourishes (an assassination carried out in a single, nonchalant take), and focus (via Clayton) on a moral crisis more implicit than overt. Yet Gilroy, a first-time director, mimics the skins of his mentors without ever attaining their soul.

What remains are the all-too-infrequent pleasures of performance: a sweat-drenched Tilda Swinton as U-North's villainous general counsel, licking her lips like a ravenous cat; Wilkinson’s intense reading of the film’s verbose opening monologue, which finds a place of shame (or honor?) beside his equally guffaw-inducing line from Girl With a Pearl Earring (“You’ve glazed my wife in dried piss!”); a lovelorn defendant’s (Merritt Wever) tearful confession to Clayton in an airport motel, her dialogue punctuated by the roar of planes flying overhead.

But Michael Clayton rests, as it must, on Clooney’s shoulders, and as revealed by the film’s conceptually intriguing final close-up, he is decidedly not up to the task. Clayton is supposed to be a hollow man redeemed, but in Clooney’s inexpert (perhaps merely disengaged) hands he remains a cipher, a non-entity finally canceled out by Gilroy and company’s muddled motivations. All too appropriately for this self-described “janitor”, Michael Clayton leaves nary a stain on the heart or the mind.

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Comments (5)

Mr. Uhlich states that Michael Clayton is an "anti-capitalist screed made by fervent capitalists"but, he neglects to explain what he believes are it's anti-capitalistic ideas nor explain how any of the filmmakers involved are fervent capitalists themselves. It is this sort of baseless, empty-headed rhetoric that makes me cringe.

Mr Uhlich, if you are going to make such a bold statement perhaps you should be more thoughtful and more thorough and give specific examples as to why you believe that is the case rather than simply make these statements without any evidence as to their validity.

what exactly doesn't poster MaxwellSwell understand? Quite obviously the anti-capitalist screed is the myth that Big Bad corporate types routinely poison innocent children and then lie, cheat, and murder to cover up. The fervent capitalism of the moviemakers is indicated by the millions of dollars raised and spent to make a bundle of profit on the anti-capitalist movie produced.

Hello!--Is anyone else having trouble understanding this?

F. MacDonald

I do think it's a shame that a really intelligent, well acted, and beautifully written movie like Clayton has to be nit picked to nobody's advantage, except perhaps of the writer's bloviated sentiments and limited perspective. But such is the state of the on-line review.

A critique written to allow the viewer a way into this film might recognize something really worth seeing as opposed to the usual hyped up commercial muck. This films structure, dialog, and the richness of the characters are unintelligent and enormously fun; there's no sex, no guns, no chases, but its nonetheless riveting in part due to the pared down visual style and subtle soundtrack, the splendid actors, and state of the art writing. This a gift to an adult audience.
You have to actually pay attention and , just like the character, you're gradually drawn further and further in to the plot. You're treated finally to a rewarding and roundly entertaining payoff scene.

Over the credits, rather than coming on with a maudlin piece of pop music, we get to study Clayton/Clooney's face for a good while as he rides the taxi through New York and we find ourselves asking questions, forcing us to imagine resolution , still keeping us engaged, as we watch Clayton ponder his future. A brilliant choice. Don't miss this film!

Sorry Mr. Jackson, I'm confused now. Is the film "intelligent" or "unintelligent and enormously fun"? I sense a contradiction...maybe if I pay attention and get drawn further into your argument, there will be a rewarding payoff. Oh wait.

C'mon. I haven't even seen the movie yet, but you basically wrote "I liked this movie because it is good."

There's much to take issue with in this review, but I'll focus on Clooney's performance because Mr Uhlich is right to say that the film rests heavily on his performance. Sir, the requirement for redemption is one you have imposed. It's certainly a theme, but whether Michael achieves it is simply left open in his final cab ride. Far from a failing, this is a great strength of the film, and saves it from the sort of 70s cliche you seem to wish it had become.

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