Suspense Mined from Conscience
It's good to see new directors land on the scene with some display of confidence. Such is the case with Tony Gilroy and his Michael Clayton. The film is somewhat of a throwback to the old paranoid corporate thrillers, but right away Gilroy makes it his own, using a manic-sounding voiceover from Tom Wilkinson to grab our attention. We're soon thrown into the realm of a large New York law firm and one of its most reliable employees, their "fixer" Michael Clayton, played by George Clooney. Except he doesn't look so reliable -- he looks downright tired, beat up. The next thing we know, an unexpected surprise occurs, triggering the flashback that will comprise most of the rest of the movie.
The story unfolds like a puzzle, with the characters talking fast about the main case that's giving them problems, their roles in it, and the players that affect it. Along with this, Clayton spends time seeing his son, and seems to have a debt he's desperately trying to erase. Ultimately, he's called in to repair the situation when the firm's top dog, Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), has an epiphany about the evils his career perpetuates and flips out, endangering the status of their biggest corporate client. As the movie continues to give us more facts about the case and Clayton's life, suspense is generated until it culminates in a scene where we already know the outcome, and yet it's still able to grip us.
Gilroy is most recently known for being the main screenwriter for the Bourne series, and all of those films are streamlined technical exercises in suspense. Rather amazingly, Michael Clayton generates that same suspense-thriller feeling despite a story that wouldn't be naturally suspenseful. Also, Gilroy adds more meat to the bones of this exercise -- the film focuses on the gradual soul-sucking that comes from advancing your career while keeping your conscience in a box. Edens goes the obvious route (and we find out later that he may have been motivated by something more simple and direct), but it's Clayton who seems to have all the issues weighing more heavily, more significantly on his mind.
Frankly, the movie may not have worked at all without Clooney. Michael Clayton seems a perfect role for him -- authoritative yet weary, this character is able to keep a cool professional facade even as he strains to move forward. Much of Clooney's charisma comes from his apparent intelligence -- he knows more than you, he's seen more than you, and, as evidence, he's more worn down. His character here is scared, too, but still looking for the truth, still looking for cards he can play. He's allowed to be the combination of his most effective characters -- the sad ones, like Kelvin from Solaris, combined with a smooth, fast talker like Danny Ocean.
Actually, Clooney is also surrounded by pros. There's not a weak link in the major players. Wilkinson continues to be consistently great, and Sydney Pollack again finds himself playing the kind of role he's practically trademarked, that of a no-nonsense authority figure, in the kind of movie he's known for directing himself. In another angle to show how these high-powered positions corrode character, Tilda Swinton plays the client's corporate counsel as someone who does her job while feeling like she's walking on a platform made of matchsticks.
Meanwhile, what Clayton finds out is that, after years stuck in a successful career he didn't necessarily want, his conscience does begin to weigh on him. As in the Bourne movies, conscience is the major theme -- it creates a toll after long service as an automaton for large institutions that can't survive if a conscience existed for them. Gilroy doesn't admonish the society for having such institutions -- there's nothing preachy about Michael Clayton -- but rather delves into how they effect the people who run them. He shows that it's interesting to see how much suspense can be generated when one decides to do the right thing, simply because the forces at large will do everything they can to prevent it.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for language including some sexual dialogue.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com