Writer/director Tony Gilroy’s merciless political thriller Michael Clayton (2007) is a thriller for the ears. It draws out suspense on the most basic of levels, sure — it’s essentially a race against time movie wherein the villains are so cool and so intelligent that they’re well able to elicit more fear than your typical malevolent forces — but more chilling is its dialogue and the way its characters, all of whom are dwellers of a power hungry world that doesn’t much care if you live or you die, use it to maim the propensities of others.
Michael Clayton’s eponymous anti-hero, played by a brilliantly calculated George Clooney, is such a wordsmith. His tongue’s forever playing with fire, and he’s come to learn that serving niceties isn’t the most effective way of getting what you want in a land that thrives on intimidation. Makes sense: he’s a “fixer” for an upper-crust New York law firm. He’s the man you call when a scandal’s about to potentially erupt; he’s the man you call if you need to find someone to create some kind of distraction to divert attention away from the real problem at hand. His knowledge of loopholes and his affiliations with powerful figures has made him a hot commodity. “I’m not a miracle worker,” he sighs to a frantic client (Denis O’Hare) pleading for a way out of an entanglement. “I’m a janitor.”
But in the film is he just steps away from leaving it all behind. Never has every aspect of his life been so morbid, so deeply unhappy. On one side is his personal life shrouded in total gloom. He’s divorced and mostly sees his kid during all too brief rides to school. He’s $75,000 in debt as a result of a misguided restaurant co-investment with his drug addled brother.
But his professional existence is even more riddled with despair. His firm’s leading attorney (and Clayton’s quasi father figure) Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has suffered a disturbing manic episode that took place during a life-or-death deposition regarding a class-action lawsuit, and, in the aftermath, is threatening to reveal damning evidence that paints agricultural product manufacturer U-North as highly (and knowingly) unethical. And the conglomerate’s general counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), is more than willing to take lethal action to prevent that information from leaking to the press. Clayton, of course, is the man responsible for cleaning up the messes left behind by nearly everyone around him.
The movie, though, never proves to be the message picture it seems poised to become. It’s sure of its claims that the legal world is oftentimes a vile, cruel place — those claims being told, certainly, with the melodrama that comes with any sensational account — but Michael Clayton is more about a man’s existential crisis and the repercussions that come with his sudden disillusionment with his dog-eat-dog groomed lifestyle. For so long has Clooney’s Clayton been the definition of the world-weary, seen-it-all cynic. But in the film does he come to realize that he’s far gone down the hole of ethics breaking for the sake of protecting others who mostly don’t deserve his willingness to put his morality on the line. Within the movie’s two hours does he attempt to make some sort of right, even if the making of that right includes more, ahem, ethics breaking.
And that making even is made more investing by the tense chemistry conjured up between Clooney, Sydney Pollack (as Clayton’s boss), Swinton, and Wilkinson, who all fascinatingly bring out disparate aspects of Clayton’s crisis with himself. Pollack, superbly stern, is perhaps the only person Clayton’s able to respect in his profession, if only because he embodies what the former might look like in the grips of looming retirement. Wilkinson, exquisitely unhinged, represents all the reasons why Clayton’s put up with his job for so long. He’s had to cut corners regularly, but his long-standing relationships and his dedication to maintaining them are what keep him motivated. His losing grip of that security is heartbreaking, though Clayton’d never let us easily see that vulnerability.
But the most compelling relationship in Michael Clayton rests between the latter and Swinton’s Crowder — it’s a poisonous affinity in which takedown is the name of the game. Possibly such engrossment rings loudly because Crowder is the utmost intriguing character in the film: she’s a creation, a master of the art of the facade. (When we first meet her, she’s in the midst of rehearsing every word and gesture that will be delivered in a meeting to take place later that day.) Always protecting the masquerade that epitomizes who she thinks she is (or, rather, who she wants to be), her willingness to off others to save her own skin is more interesting than horrifying. How a person can completely lose their compassion is perplexing, and Swinton, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her characterization, captures that loss of humanity perfectly. She and Clooney, incendiary when in any scene together, have a wonderfully noxious rapport. Their final exchange makes for one of the decade’s best scenes.
Everything about Michael Clayton is seamless, its performances thrilling, its dialogue stinging, its direction wonderfully chilly. And yet it lacks the sort of urgency necessary for a movie of its sort. Centrally are its characters working against the clock, and yet the most breathless subplot to comprise the film (being Crowder’s frantic ventures to preserve her power) is oftentimes pushed aside as the least important. But the film’s nevertheless a whip smart beaut. Find a screenplay as sizzling as Gilroy’s and you might as well consider yourself to be in the presence of a masterstroke. A-