Who the fuck is Michael Clayton and why is he so awesome that a movie is named after him? Well to answer your first question, Michael Clayton is a highly effective “fixer” played by George Clooney who cleans up messes for a big law firm, and to answer your second one I guess they figured coming up with some thriller type name like THE FIXER or DEADLY REVELATION or THE BREADWINNER would be corny so they just said I don’t know, fuck it, use the character’s name, I don’t give a shit. And MICHAEL CLAYTON was born.
The thing I cannot stress enough about this movie is that it’s really fuckin good. I wasn’t prepared for that. I heard it was good, I knew it was nominated for best picture, but I don’t know man. Nobody really properly conveyed it to me I guess. I didn’t expect to be blown away by it. But this is just a great thriller, one that works so well and talks down to you so little it’s hard to believe it was made in this day and age.
The movie starts out with Mr. Clayton late one night betting on cards, then getting an emergency call from the firm, one of their biggest clients was involved in a hit and run and Clayton’s boss (Sydney fuckin Pollack) wants him to go help out. Okay, so this is gonna be some thriller involving a rich guy who tries to cover up that he ran over a jogger, right? No, this is really just here to establish Michael Clayton’s character. We’re about 10 or 15 minutes into the movie, I have no idea what the plot is even gonna be about, and I already like this movie because it’s just so tense.
Before long it skips back 4 days to show us the more important mess Michael Clayton is trying to clean up. His friend Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) has spent 6 years defending a pesticide company against a class action lawsuit, but now he’s off his anti-depressants and for some reason he went nuts, took his clothes off in a deposition room, declared his love for one of the plaintiffs and then chased everybody around the parking lot. And some of it was caught on tape. Not quite as damning as the R. Kelly tape, but close. As Michael tries to talk some sense into his crazed buddy it slowly comes out that Arthur now believes he’s on the wrong side and wants to help the plaintiffs. So the pesticide company and their head attorney (Tilda Swinton) might have some problems with that. And some shit might go down, who knows?
All of the leads are great. The most showoffy is Wilkinson obviously. He is completely nuts for the entire movie. His one moment of clarity is a beautifully setup scene where he starts talking about his area of legal expertise. It’s like he goes into auto-pilot when that comes up and is able to stop blathering about waking up with a strange film covering his body and things like that. They do a good job of making his insanity more bizarre than your run-of-the-mill insanity. Not quite Marlon Brando in ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, but close. In one scene he’s carrying around about 30 loafs of bread. In another one he’s on the phone with Michael Clayton’s son getting the details on the kid’s favorite fantasy novel as if his life depends on it.
And Clooney… I mean, he’s playing a pretty straight forward dramatic lead, but he nails it. He doesn’t get to fall back on his usual charm and humor because things are tense for most of the movie. He has a couple funny lines but they’re completely bitter. He’s obviously a very intelligent guy, so you believe everything he says. This Clooney guy is going places, I tell ya.
I was most impressed by Tilda Swinton though. Her character does some horrible things. In any other movie like this, I guarantee you this character would be played as a tough, ice–hearted superbitch. But Swinton plays her as vulnerable, even shy. I mean it’s partly the script, because we are introduced to her character nervously practicing her board meeting speeches in a mirror, and we see alot of this throughout. If you just saw her in meetings she’d seem like this confident, powerful woman, but in her hotel room she seems terrified. Later, in a climactic confrontation, she doesn’t turn into a pitbull, she trembles in fear. She’s not a supervillain, she’s a normal woman who has made some very immoral choices.
And the movie is full of these types of smart choices and believable characterizations. There are a couple of dirty deeds motherfuckers who are willing to kill when they are told to, but they in no way seem like typical movie hitmen. They seem like some guys who are doing a job. Their method is so efficient and practiced it’s terrifying. They don’t say any movie bad guy lines. They kill a guy and one of them checks his pulse and says, “We’re good.”
As good as all the actors are though, the MVP is definitely writer/director Tony Gilroy. Where did this come from? I know the BOURNE movies were good, and he wrote those, but how did he turn into such a great writer-director? His style is somewhere between Steve Soderbergh and Dave Mamet. He got a great look, great acting, great atmosphere, I would never guess he was a screenwriter trying his hand at directing for the first time. And this is a hell of a script, perfectly constructed. It starts like an evening unfolding with random events, then it works in all this backstory and different goings on – a failed restaurant venture, a falling out with his addict brother, a gambling addiction, the firm in the middle of a merger – and somehow it all comes together AND leads into a completely badass, giving-you-goosebumps type of climax. And it respects your intelligence. Treats you like an adult. It trusts you to stick with it for a while before the puzzle pieces start to fit together.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.