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Thursday, September 28, 2023


Michael Clayton’ slowly instills fear, suspense

"I am Shiva, the god of death."

It is with that haunting whisper from a deathly looking Tom Wilkinson, spoken with a shadowy, world-weary tone of desperation and despair, that we witness the physical personification of the malicious destruction of power and corruption. We witness a man’s mental breakdown, his own internal spiral down the psychological steps leading directly to hell. We witness a man’s spiritual transformation.

We witness true realism.

It is with this realism that Michael Clayton, a film that relies more on subtleties and details than the more marketable, few-and-far-between thrills, works. It is the fear in Wilkinson’s whispers, the dark bags under George Clooney’s sad eyes, Tilda Swinton’s continuous starve for that unobtainable perfection as she stands for many minutes in front of a mirror, going over every detail in her professional yet still feminine outfit.

Clayton is a film best read between the lines, with care and precision (more than some might be willing to give). Still, when you lift the hood on this film, you’ll find a more haunting sense of doomed realism that gives Michael Clayton the edge that separates it from the standard legal drama.

Clooney is a "fixer." A New York City attorney whose expensive suits and leased Mercedes can’t hide the truth that his tired eyes and sad disposition reveal to the world; he has paid the price for his success. When a suspiciously guilt-ridden attorney, Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), sabotages one of the firm’s most important cases with his uncontrollable behavior, Clayton is sent in to "fix" the problem. He soon realizes the importance of this assignment and while his job may be on the line, it is his own life that he should be worried about.

This "legal thriller" works best as a tediously paced character study rather than an aggressive legal drama and, is a highly impressive directorial debut from Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the Bourne trilogy. It is often the moments of deafening silence in a conversation between Clayton and Edens that makes this a film rather than a car explosion or an intense boardroom confrontation.

There is a reason the film is named after its main character: It’s about him. It’s not about the destination as much as it is his journey. It’s not about cars being blown up as much as it is our fear that he may be in the car. We’re never supposed to care about his predicament more than we care about him. This is not an examination of actions; it’s an examination of reactions.

This is a mature film that requires a lot from its audience. The film goes down easier and is more enjoyable once the subplots and character developments (many of which you don’t figure out until the final climactic minutes) are finally resolved.

While the film has several dramatic and engaging moments, its plot can often move along quite tediously. While never slow enough to become a distraction, it is like standing too close while putting together a 500-piece puzzle. Often monotonous and wearisome, it is not until you stand back and examine the beauty of the finished product that you finally come to terms with the fact that the end really does justify the means.

Michael Clayton rests, however, on its most solid foundation: powerhouse performances. Clooney, who will probably receive an Oscar nomination for this role, impresses by simply making you forget that he’s one of the most famous people in the world and, instead, works on making you come to terms with the fact that he’s one of the best actors working in Hollywood.

His undeniable charisma is overcome by the overwhelming melancholy of his life, as he fleshes out a character that could have easily been two-dimensional. Wilkinson is brilliant at the so-crazy-he-might-be-genius attorney who slips into the darkness of his manic depression while coming to terms with the hardships that his actions have caused hundreds of lives. Tilda Swinton gives a brilliantly restrained performance, making the role of a nervously wired litigator one of the most interesting story arcs in the film.

This is a well-made, well-directed and well-acted legal drama, though it really doesn’t add much to the genre in terms of story or creativity. It never strays beyond the boundaries of what it knows it can accomplish, both a respectable and condemnable quality in a film. It works hard to be respected and not quite hard enough to be loved; movie magic only truly comes when the two go hand in hand.

As I left the theater on my first viewing of Michael Clayton, I felt relief in escaping the gloomy realism of the evils of man, the bright sunshine, the clear blue sky, and the warm fall air. Still, I was haunted several days later by the soft whisper of Shiva, the god of death, and I knew the movie wasn’t as escapable as I thought.

It doesn’t get more real than that.

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