by Del Harvey
Writer/director Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton is a mature thriller of the highest caliber.
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Tony Gilroy is known as the screenwriter of such blockbusters as the Bourne films and Armageddon. And maybe adapting the Bourne films is what led to his writing this film; I don’t know. But whatever it was, thank goodness he did. Michael Clayton is one of the most adult and expertly contrived thrillers to come along in a very long while. Unlike the action-heavy Bourne films, Michael Clayton relies heavily on intelligence, borrows generously from the real-life, and delivers a powerful film with much to say about the way America conducts business these days.
In the film, Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an in-house “fixer” at one of the largest corporate law firms in New York. He was a former criminal prosecutor, but currently takes care of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen’s dirtiest work at the behest of the firm’s co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack). Though nearly burnt out and just barely content with his job as a fixer—which he considers to be equal to a janitor cleaning up the messes of others, that’s not all that Michael must deal with when we join his story. He is also coping with his divorce and taking care of a wonderful son named Henry (Austin Williams), a failed business venture with one of his brothers and the mounting debt attached to that bad business decision. However, whatever poor personal life decisions Michael has made, he is the ace among a 600-person law firm when it comes to taking care of the messy life decisions and horrendously life-changing mistakes of others.
One of his messes involves traveling to Minnesota and retrieving Kenner Bach’s brilliant, guilt-ridden, and mentally unstable senior partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who has been jailed for stripping naked at a deposition and pursuing one of the plaintiffs through the parking lot dressed only in his socks, all the while professing his love for her. But soon Michael discovers that Arthur’s 6 years and 300,000 hours of work for their Minnesota client, global agriculture giant U/North, has uncovered a number of bad business practices which not only could affect their bottom line, but have also been killing people. That is when U/North’s Chief Counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) decides to do something about the outside law firm and Arthur in particular, especially since the success of the firm rests on the multi-million dollar settlement of a class action suit that Clayton’s firm is leading to a seemingly successful conclusion. Or, it certainly seemed that way before Arthur disrobed before a roomful of strangers and left his dangling participle out for all the view.
Gilroy has crafted an electrifying story which evokes many pertinent issues facing millions of Americans daily. The success of the film rides squarely on Clooney’s shoulders, and it’s a duty he has been well-suited for. The rest of the cast is superb, from the businesswoman without a life that is Swinton’s character right down to Clayton’s role-game playing son Henry, who shows an understanding of the workings of the world which many of us adults could benefit from. In addition to the usual $6,000 suit lawyers and corporate types, there are also a pair of shadowy “detective” types who are on Swinton’s payroll and who will do absolutely anything their client requests, so long as the price is right.
Come next Spring, I would not be surprised to find any of the main players—Gilroy, Clooney, Wilkinson, or Swinton—nominated for a gold statuette. Whether as a thought-provoking thriller or an adult drama, Michael Clayton is just that good.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a screenwriter and filmmaker, and currently teaches film at Columbia College Chicago.
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