And I don't mean that just in the literal sense. I mean that this is a man who has lost his way. But the good news is that he's starting to realize it. In an early scene, we see Michael Clayton, perfectly played by George Clooney, listen to a hotshot lawyer try to explain why it's not his fault that he just committed a hit-and-run, and you can sense that after years and years, Michael Clayton has finally fucking had it. He's just sick and tired of dealing with these morally bereft people, and of being one of them himself.
In my last post I compared Michael Clayton to Jerry Maguire, and I wasn't entirely kidding. Both films are about men whose professions have required them to put their ethics aside, and they each, in their own way, reach the breaking point. But that's pretty much where the similarities end. (If I was gonna put a double feature together with Michael Clayton, I think I'd pair it with the superb The Constant Gardener, another thriller which deals with a man taking on a corporation that puts its own profits ahead of human lives.)
The catalyst for Michael's change is the breakdown of another lawyer, Arthur Edens (played by Tom Wilkinson). Is Arthur crazy? Maybe a little, but in fact, considering how long he's been forced to subjugate his moral sensibilities in the representation of an agricultural conglomerate called U/North, his sudden snap seems like a step on the path toward being a complete human being again.
Of course, taking on a company that doesn't value human life brings with it certain dangers. Part of what makes Michael Clayton such an exceptional film is the way in which the very real ethical issues it's dealing with are so seamlessly intertwined with its function as a sleek and compelling thriller. It's also a terrific example of economical storytelling. It comes in at just under two hours, which is pretty remarkable considering the complex amount of information about this case, and these characters, that the film communicates. Writer/director Tony Gilroy's dialogue tells us a great deal about these people in a very short amount of time, and makes us see the decency in Clayton, obscured as it is by his actions.
Of course the cast is also crucial, and in addition to great work by Clooney and Wilkinson, there's also the always outstanding Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder, U/North's chief counsel. We see her rehearsing responses to questions repeatedly in front of the mirror, and stressing out in a bathroom stall, but when it's game time, she busts out her game face and has the perfect non-answer for every question. She has also lost touch with her moral center, if she ever had one, and may be in too deep to have any chance for reclaiming it. At one point she is asked about her work-life balance, but there is no balance. Her work is her life, and it's a miserable one, but she has nothing else, and that's what makes her so dangerous. She has everything to lose.
Michael Clayton was thoroughly entertaining and satisfying while I was watching it, but its true power is in the way it has stayed in my head since then. It's a kind of horror movie, really, because the reality is that people and companies like these are all around us. They are part of our society now, and they are growing and spreading like a disease. Things are pretty bleak. The only hope for the human race is, of course, more outstanding politically and ethically charged films starring George Clooney.
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5 years ago