George Clooney is a classic movie star that occasionally acts his ass off. He’s charming, affable and loves to dish and dice up his bad decisions(Batman and Robin) and offer cool behind the scenes stories about Hollywood. He’s also a fine actor, and an Oscar winner(for the hard boiled drama, Syriana). However, that isn’t his greatest performance. Granted, Clooney is also an acclaimed writer/director/producer who recently won for Argo and has directed quiet gems like Goodnight, Good Luck but his finest hour came in the underrated Tony Gilroy thriller, Michael Clayton.
In the film, Clooney plays the title character, a “fixer” for a prestigious law firm who specializes in dirty cover ups and soulless work. He’s also a flawed parent and degenerate gambler who wanted to open a restaurant and failed. In the film’s central plot, Clayton is brought in to remedy a situation where one of the law firm’s best lawyers comes undone while he is hammering a nail into a chemical company he knows is guilty in a billion dollar class action law suit.
Gilroy’s method of madness here is putting this seemingly familiar pot of goods on the burner and slowly turning the heat on the characters. The film starts out with Clayton running from a burning car and flashes back to one of his easy fixes(which involves the brilliant actor Denis O’Hare). Gilroy establishes that Clayton is a man slowly losing touch with who he is and that the work he is doing is beginning to eat into his soul. A man who has the connections to fix everybody’s problems except for his own. The film is a marvel of work due to Gilroy’s script and his direction, but also from the performance of Clooney. The man is in nearly every single scene of this film and if we don’t buy into his remorse and feel some contempt for his character, the movie doesn’t work.
He has plenty of fine company to dine with here, including Sydney Pollack’s last complete work, Tom Wilkinson’s Oscar nominated turn, and Tilda Swinton’s Oscar Winning work. For my money, Clooney is the best of the bunch and that’s because he shows us a slow transformation in Clayton that takes place over the two hour running time. This isn’t easy work because this movie was made in 2007, which was the height of Clooney’s reign. He was doing the Ocean films, popping up in other notable movies and beginning to unwind as a filmmaker. He is in the public eye constantly and that means as an actor, he has to work so much harder to produce a signature performance. This isn’t feeling sorry for a rich man, but explaining the difficulty in Clooney’s drive to be taken seriously.
He has been great elsewhere and the list isn’t short. Syriana. Oceans Eleven. My Brother Where Art Thou. Up In The Air. Three Kings. There are more but in Clayton, Clooney digs deep and doesn’t wear an ounce of makeup or use an accent to hide who we see him as. He’s a wounded warrior trying to find a way home in the most dangerous cutthroat world, the corporate empire.
For the first half of the film, Clooney does a fine job as Clayton. He works a few facial expressions and builds the seeds beneath which will make this character sing later on in the film. We buy into his plight and his proposed flight. At the halfway mark, Clooney delivers a speech to son, played by Austin Williams. He tells his son about the harrowing world they live in and how looking up to people like himself or the boy’s uncle isn’t the right way to go about it. It’s an out of nowhere knockdown moment that Clooney deftly plays without getting too sentimental. It is also the kickoff of knock down, drag out Clayton that fuels the rest of the film which involves exploding cars, killer showdowns between cast members and a climax that will make you fist bump everyone in close proximity. The final lingering camera shot on Clooney as he rides around in a taxi is so confident, perfect and allows the viewer to wonder if this constant man of sorrow is ever going to realize happiness or just think of as a state of mind.
Gilroy is a master of high stakes thrills and drama. He wrote the Matt Damon Bourne films and wrote and directed the Jeremy Renner vehicle(another underrated gem), The Bourne Legacy. He is constantly raising the bar set by his previous characters and stories, and Michael Clayton is his jewel because it doesn’t have the action but it has all the power of his work.
Michael Clayton can be enjoyed even if you don’t like Clooney, because he isn’t playing the flashy loving talker but a man who goes to great lengths to suddenly retrieve his soul inside a dirty world. As good as his role in Syriana was(his diner faceoff with Christopher Plummer is all time great there), Clayton gives Clooney his own venue to establish his premium talents as a performer. The film suits him and relies on him coming through, which he does in a big way.
If you haven’t seen it, find it, digest it and watch it again. The movie grows on you if it’s too cold or diabolical at first and it gets better if it hits you the first time. Whenever it lingers too long in the realm of suits and misery, it immediately exits and enters a world of family and finding peace. As I mentioned before, the pot gets hot when Clayton decides to clean up his own mess instead of the firms and it all starts in that car with his son.
Other moments that sting and surge inside a viewer’s system.
*A moment with Wilkinson’s character in Times Square and a scene back at his loft reverberate because we all have that aha moment in our life where it all clicks.
*Clayton has a moment after the car explosion where he encounters horses that could went over someone’s head but instead lands right in your chest. It’s quick and fleeting but if you allow yourself to ride with the tempo of the story, it’ll hit you…hard.
*Scenes between Clayton and his brother(Sean Cullen) are so good that you instantly see the past these two characters share. Honest and brutal.
*James Newton Howard’s is subtle and carries certain scenes that are dialogue driven. Howard doesn’t overpower the story, instead spraying lubricant on the tracks of the plot.
*Robert Elswit’s cinematography is shrouded in black and dark gray, echoing the mood of the story and the characters and where their heads are at.
*Swinton is brilliant here as an attorney who prides herself on repetition yet is slowly undone by this case and Clooney’s character. Her faceoff with Clooney towards the end is a polar opposite of their first encounter and serves as a highlight that had to leave Gilroy singing himself to sleep that night after the shoot.
Look, George Clooney’s career speaks for itself and doesn’t require this uninformed opinion to give it any extra airtime. However, whenever I see pics from the movie or think about some of the scenes, I get filled with movie lover ambition and demand a date with my couch and a pot of coffee to relive it again. Michael Clayton is as powerful as it gets and its a beautiful slow burn of a story. It’s greatest virtue is Clooney’s go for broke performance.
Watch it…like right now.