Michael Clayton (8/10)

The legal thriller is a tricky genre in film. You have to convey the complexities of the legal system without throwing the audience into a coma from sheer boredom, while at the same time not compromising on story or character and giving people some solid drama and thrills. Though “Michael Clayton” does sometimes get a little too confusing for its own good, it does reward people who pay close attention to it with a taut and tense storyline and engaging and believable characters.

George Clooney plays Michael Clayton, the “Fixer”, a kind of free agent that cleans up the dirty messes that corporate clients can tend to leave behind. As the movie begins we can see the telling emotional lines that this exhausting and sometimes ethics-compromising line of work can leave behind, played out on Clooney’s face, especially in his eyes. This is a world-weary man if there ever were one, plagued by a gambling problem, family issues, and mounting debt, and now one of the biggest messes he’s ever encountered is coming up, involving a close friend of his, Arthur Edens, played by the excellent Tom Wilkinson. Edens has been working on a case that will cement the prestigious career of Tilda Swinton’s Karen Crowder, head of a budding eco-company called uNorth, but apparently something fishy is going on and Clayton is called in to clean up the mess left behind by the slowly eroding sanity of Edens.

“Michael Clayton” literally begins with a bang, in which we see a car bomb go off in Clayton’s car as he is standing on the side of a hill several hundred feet away. Then we flash back to four days earlier, driven the impetus of finding out what in the world brought us to that point. The difference between the Clayton at the very beginning of the film and the Clayton ten minutes in is massive, and most all of that is due to George Clooney’s brilliance as an actor.

I mentioned earlier the lines etched on his face and the sadness telling in his eyes, but that only expresses a fraction of what Clooney’s face, body language, tone of voice, and sheer acting ability convey in this film. It’s mind-boggling to watch him create this character from a bunch of legal babble. There’s a scene, with absolutely no dialogue, that goes on for three to five minutes, in which we watch Clooney’s face, which occupies more than half the screen. There’s no sound except the taxi that he’s riding. It’s three of the most riveting minutes I’ve seen onscreen in years, and some of the best acting too. The emotions that he plays across that face in those couple of minutes is terrifying, saddening, sobering, and exhilarating. Though if Clooney were the only good actor in the film, it wouldn’t really be worth seeing. Fortunately, he’s accompanied by an array of some of the best in the business.

Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder plays her corrupt-hearted character with a kind of sensitive portrayal that humanizes a person that any other actor probably would have demonized. It’s brilliant work. Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens with vigorous intensity, portraying him as a man on the edge of sanity whose world has just come unhinged. It’s fascinating work, but I almost questioned the acting. It seemed over-the-top, and I didn’t buy his character as a real one as much as I bought Clooney and Winton. Sydney Pollack as Clooney’s boss is wonderful as always, but does nothing that’s remarkable or particularly noteworthy.

The story itself is kind of convoluted, with a lot of legal babble that will confuse you and leave you wondering what the heck happened, unless you’re paying close attention. However, even if you never look away from the screen and keep your ears tuned to every line of dialogue, you’re bound to get lost at some point, though if you continue to pay attention you’ll catch up with the story. This is a minor error, but one thing that the confusing storyline causes that is more egregious is its dehumanization of the characters. By the end of the film, though these have all been very interesting characters to watch, you don’t really sympathize with any of them that much, except for Clayton. They’re more case studies than actual people, which makes it hard to care what happens to the mess that Clayton is supposed to resolve. The central conflict of the whole affair also feels too typical, as if the screenwriters created this entire complex plot first and then just added the central conflict as an afterthought. I won’t give it away, but I will say that it made the central villains seem more like cartoon bad guys than actual people.

Michael Clayton’s best strength is unquestionably the acting. These are all such superb actors doing such amazing work that the performances alone will keep your eyes glued to the screen. The story is also engrossing enough and it challenges you to actually pay attention to specific details and people, as opposed to the typical simplistic plot that Hollywood is so used to giving out. Sure, it has its weak points and it’s by no means a masterpiece, but it is a fine legal thriller and one that will take its place right up there with other classics of its genre.


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