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Monday, February 11, 2008

Film Review: Clooney, Wilkinson as Looney, Shine in Michael Clayton

Clooney and Wilkinson

Michael Clayton is a thriller that turns the genre inside out to expose something deeper. Like several films this year it toys with and incorporates stylistic and structural tics of 1970s cinema. In some ways it's closest analogue is Alan J. Pakula's 1976 All The President's Men -- strikingly so in the opening shots of expansive, empty nighttime offices -- though Clayton is purely fictional rather than a dramatization of very real and recent events like Pakula's film.

Pakula used the massive edifices of Washington D.C. to dramatize the great machinery of government in comparison to Woodward and Bernstein, while in Clayton the assured director/screenwriter Tony Gilroy uses his shots of New York City to make the same point about Clayton in comparison to corporate America. He's aided by superb cinematography throughout by Robert Elswit who's having a great year, having also photographed the gorgeous There Will Be Blood.

The character of Michael Clayton, played superbly by a never-better George Clooney, could be any of us. A very specialized cog in the corporate machine of his law firm, he's the fixer, the guy who can get things done and erase embarrassing truths outside of the light of day. He may have had dreams at one time of doing something more satisfying but he's been deemed great at what he does and so this is it for him.

His latest clean-up assignment is the firm's chief litigator, played by Tom Wilkinson, a friend of Clayton's and a man with talents and troubles. Wilkinson's portrayal of a man with too much knowledge, both unraveling and awakening from intellectual slumber, is simply stunning.

It's a tipoff that Gilroy has more in mind than a typical thriller that the film essentially starts with Clayton's "Paul on the Road to Damascus" moment, only instead of falling off of his ass he steps out of his Mercedes. It's a great scene, with both Clooney's in-car navigation having failed and his internal moral compass spinning wildly he makes Clayton's confusion and sadness palpable.

Then we are off onto the rest of the tale. The corporate intrigue is only a piece of the puzzle Clayton has to figure out -- the real puzzle is himself. His brothers and his son all play a part in his awakening, just as a farmgirl does for Wilkinson earlier on in the narrative.

The performances are top-notch across the board, with Tilda Swinton winning a BAFTA as an edgy perfectionist corporate ladder climber and Tootsie director Sidney Pollack as the head of Clooney's law firm standing out. Pollack is a clever choice, having directed another 70s reference point for this one, Three Days of The Condor. Pollack shows us the faceless grip of the corporation in a fantastic scene where he lays out the importance of the firm's upcoming merger -- it's very reminiscent of one of Clooney's favorite 70s films Network.

If Pollack is there to show us the ways in which even the man in charge is still just a man in thrall to his company, Swinton is the company. Her skin is nearly translucent, her eyes inky and flat, her whole body and being a medium of corporate branding and survival strategy.

It's a shame that the marketing mavens at Warner Bros. didn't seem to know what to do with Clayton but the academy noms have thankfully given this film a second rollout -- see it while its still in theatres.

Clayton gets 5 out of 5 briefs:

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