Michael Clayton ****
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Written by Tony Gilroy
George Clooney as Michael Clayton
Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens
Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder
Sydney Pollack as Marty Bach
Michael O'Keefe as Barry Grissom
Ken Howard as Don Jefferies
120 Minutes(Rated R for language including some sexual dialogue. )
Every year, there is that "smart movie" that comes out-a thriller that has a screenplay with so much brain, that it could outsmart you on a game show. Usually the "smart movie" of the year goes over my head, and I leave the theatre disappointed that I couldn't understand it all. In 2005 that film was "Syriana," a film that I appreciated but didn't really like, mainly because I couldn't figure out what the hell was going on. This year there is a difference-the film is "Michael Clayton" and I was able to get it all. Maybe it's because I'm two years older, or maybe because its just a better movie. Either way, this is one of the best movies I've seen all year, and certainly the best film I've seen during this fall Oscar season-which has had some winners and some major disappointments-kind of like every year.
George Clooney is a lock for a Best Actor nomination in the title role as Michael Clayton. Michael is a "fixer" for a very successful law firm, and has worked with them for seventeen years and still hasn't been made a partner. When we first meet him he is down on his luck, playing poker in a warehouse poker game, when he gets a call from a co-worker in a jam. One of his clients was involved in a hit and run accident and he needs Michael to "take care of it." Obviously wore and not interested, we go back in time four days earlier and learn what has been bothering Michael Clayton. With a family that he lost, a restaurant business that failed, and a brother that has a drug problem, Michael has enough on his plate even when he learns that Arthur Edens, a defense lawyer in the middle of a huge case in support of a company called U North, stripped naked in the middle of a conference and ran in a parking lot, claiming that the company is really a killer. What follows is a massive conspiracy and web of corruption as Michael learns what Arthur has been collecting, and at the same time tries to practice the loyalty to his company by doing his job like he's been asked.
It's quite hard to come up with a concrete plot summary for the film, and whenever somebody asks me what it is about, I just basically tell them that it's a "talking legal thriller." The film is complex, but never complicated-many scenes go on with long fancy words and descriptions, but its easy to follow and get the main idea. And the script is magnificently written, and the acting is supreme. Clooney is good, but supporting actor Tom Wilkinson gets such a meaty role. His opening monologue at the very beginning of the film is so good that it hooks you in from the start. Wilkinson is one of my favorite actors, but usually he is reduced to supporting work where he is the voice of reason-"The Last Kiss" and even this summer's "Dedication" were blase films, but he managed to hold them together during his scenes. He even made "Black Knight," with Martin Lawrence, tolerable. Here he actually has a three dimensional character-a scene where he treats Clayton as an alley, and then quickly turns against him, is expertly done. Tilda Swinton is good in her little role here, and Sydney Pollack is pretty much coasting his way through, but I've always found him better behind the camera than in front of it-except for his turn in "Husbands and Wives."
When we get to the final thirty minutes, we revisit scenes that happened in the first thirty minutes, only now we have different information, more context, and we can understand it more. And even though we know the outcome of this event, director and writer Tony Gilroy manages to make so much tension occur, and this is the first film that he wrote and direct. And yet I can see him getting nominations for both script and direction. It really is that good. We also get a rather interesting character study of this man, and you are so caught up in the story and the direction that you seem to forget that this film is called "Michael Clayton" and he really is the focal point, up until the very last shot that goes into the credits, which made me say that I need to see it again and look at it from a different perspective. "Michael Clayton" is a perfect legal thriller-never dull, never forced, and has a real whammy of an ending. I loved this movie.