Michael Clayton
directed by Tony Gilroy
(Warner Bros., 2007)

Meet Michael Clayton, the poster child for multitasking.

Clayton (George Clooney) is a single father, a failed restaurateur and a high-stakes poker player (some would say gambling addict), but he spends most of his time working as the "fixer" -- kind of a one-man triage unit -- for the prestigious New York law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen.

In fact, Kenner, Bach & Ledeen keeps Clayton on his cell phone just about 24/7 and would gladly have him working 25/7 or 26/8, if that were chronometrically possible. That's because Kenner, Bach & Ledeen is itself tied up, both in merger talks with a giant British firm that is never named and in defending its client, agribusiness giant U-north, from a $3 billion class-action suit filed by hundreds of family farmers who somehow got the idea that they were being killed off by the U-north weed killer Culcitate.

It's a case that doesn't involve Clayton. At least, not until star KB&L attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) suffers a mental breakdown while questioning a plaintiff (Merritt Wever), declares his undying love for the young woman, tears off all his clothing and chases her through a nearby parking lot -- all in front of video cameras. Suddenly, Clayton is called in to clean up the mess.

And therein lies a tale, Michael Clayton, that was nominated for 47 awards, including seven Oscars, and won seven awards, including one Oscar: best supporting actress, for Tilda Swinton, a.k.a. Karen Crowder, chief counsel for U-north. Swinton is impressive from start to finish, perhaps no more so than in the scenes where she rehearses her impromptu remarks for the press while she grooms and dresses herself -- preparing a face to meet the faces that she meets, to borrow T.S. Eliot's phrase.

But just as impressive as Swinton's primping is the way writer/director Tony Gilroy cuts back and forth between Crowder's prep sessions and her interviews. We see her prep, we see her interview, we see her prep, we see her interview -- with the lines cutting back and forth from one into another until we're not quite sure where we are anymore.

It's an effect that seems to come naturally to Gilroy, who has screenplay credit for all three Bourne films. In fact, the entire film is circular, starting very near the end, then quickly rebooting four days earlier and taking viewers step by step, almost hour by hour, through all that Clayton has to -- or chooses to -- endure.

Along the way, we learn that Clayton has a loving but testy relationship with his son (Austin Williams); a testy but loving relationship with his brother, Timmy (David Lansbury), his partner in the restaurant and the real reason it failed (though Clayton is taking the heat); and, most importantly for plot purposes, a very loving but very testy relationship with Edens, whom Clayton has brought back from the edge of insanity on at least one previous occasion.

But this time it's different, for two reasons: 1) Edens, whose seemingly mad voice-over rantings open the film, has no intention of coming back this time, because after all his years of shilling for KB&L, he's unearthed two things that won't let him continue -- a simple farm girl who just tells it like it happened and a U-north document that says she and her family never should have been exposed to Culcitate; and 2) because the hit men are on the prowl, making this truly a life-or-death matter for Edens and Clayton.

Just how this all plays out is the stuff of Michael Clayton. And good stuff it is -- not just the acting and the editing, but the shooting and the scripting as well. Clayton looks as dark as the dramatic material it's made of. New York at night can be an eerie place, and Gilroy makes the most of it. Edens' loft apartment, with its grid of shadows, is especially unnerving.

But even more impressive is the script. In a film where tension and suspense mean everything, Gilroy lets his characters speak, sometimes at surprising length, and reveal things about themselves or the world they live or struggle to keep living in.

"There's no play here, there's no angle, there's no champagne room," Clayton tells a prospective client who's just committed hit-and-run. "I'm not a miracle worker. I'm a janitor. The math on this is simple: the smaller the mess, the easier it is for me to clean up."

In Michael Clayton, Gilroy makes a big mess. And he cleans it up real good -- good enough to net Oscar nominations for best director, best screenplay written directly for the screen and best picture. In a year without No Country for Old Men, it would be hard to imagine him or his movie coming in second to anyone.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

31 January 2009

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