The phrase “a George Clooney thriller about lawyers from the guy who wrote all three Bourne films” (Tony Gilroy, who also directed the film) probably evokes a certain type of film. Perhaps a high-octane courtroom drama, a more action-packed A Few Good Men and/or any film adaptation of a John Grisham novel. All told, of course, with that trademark Clooney twinkle in the eye (you know what I’m talking about).
Well, let me just say this – Michael Clayton is NOT that film.
If that’s what you were expecting, you will most likely come out of the movie theater disappointed – as some people clearly seemed to be in my theater. (I’m looking at you, not-so-subtly grumbling guys in front of me!)
To keep on this film-to-film comparison track, picture Michael Clayton more like this: if you considered Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck to be a Red Scare thriller of hand-clenching suspense, then you will think Michael Clayton is quite the thrill ride.
Otherwise, think of it as the structural plot of a thriller like The Pelican Brief (environmental theme and all) set in the quagmire of law firm morality from A Devil’s Advocate, minus the horror, and well, presence of the Devil – yet shot with the quiet, reflective silences and elegant, almost calm, pacing of Good Night, and Good Luck.
Gilroy, who actually helped pen Devil’s Advocate, noted in Entertainment Weekly that:
The idea [for Michael Clayton] came during [1997’s] The Devil’s Advocate. We were tailing all these law firms in New York, and I was really kind of shocked and fascinated by all this stuff that was going on behind the scenes — that there was this whole back of the house, the kitchen area of the restaurant. And I thought, God, that’s really untouched. Nobody’s done a movie about that. And I started talking to people, and soon I said to myself that this is a whole ecosystem that hasn’t been tapped in the movies.
And the film is mostly an exploration of the human effects of the legal profession – a quote-unquote serious film’s “portrait of a lawyer as a middle-aged man” trapped in the skeleton (or at least marketing machine) of a star-driven thriller. The movie certainly has the plot of a thriller, with the necessary conspiracies, cover-ups and imminent danger – but even its most climactic scenes, full of confrontation and menace, are at a low boil, treated slowly, carefully, contemplatively, and often silently, leading to an ending that leaves you feeling a bit, well, empty, that you were waiting for something that never came. The typical thriller’s catharsis is never fulfilled. Where is the rush of adrenaline, the feeling of triumph or at least the satisfaction of completion, the tying up of loose ends? Not here – but then, this is not that kind of film.
The star himself, as Clayton, convincingly portrays a weary, weary (and I mean those italics) man. No twinkle in his eye this time, Clooney embodies a man treading a life he’s no longer sure he wants, or even understands. The movie spends time with his son, his extended family and his (doomed) attempts at a life outside of law – creating a complex portrait of a man over the course of a few short, but momentous, days in his life.
Sydney Pollack also appears as the man dragging Clayton into the quicksand with a smile, and Tilda Swinton – as a corporate lawyer stuck in a hole she just keeps digging herself into – is almost terrifying as the literal personification of a nervous breakdown, her widening eyes seeming to virtually darken to black as she buries herself further into her nightmare. And Tom Wilkinson as a star lawyer who may have lost his marbles and just doesn’t want to find them again, somehow manages to find the humor in both this film and dangerous insanity.
In other words, this is a great film – but if you’re looking for the fun thrills of a fast-paced conspiracy, this is not the film for you.