‘Michael Clayton’: Dark, but never dull“Michael Clayton” is a grown-up’s movie in every sense.
It’s not funny. It’s not cute. It has the least compelling title ever. It’s dreary, dark and deals with dastardly doings.
Yet Tony Gilroy, who directed and wrote the film, manages to hook the audience with an utterly riveting plot and a satisfying conclusion.
Sure, the film starts out slow. All is silent and black at first, then a harried, insane monologue fills the air. We learn the owner of the stammering voice, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a brilliant workaholic lawyer who appears to have cracked under the pressure of a huge corporate case.
On the receiving end of the monologue is the namesake of the movie, Michael Clayton ― and no, he is not a historical figure.
George Clooney plays Michael, Arthur’s complicated protege. Gilroy’s deft scenes of characterization reveal the many faces of Michael: There’s the broke gambler looking for the lucky break that will buy him a happy life free from corporate law. There’s the family man willing to risk his own neck to pay off a loan shark on his deadbeat brother’s behalf. Then, of course, there’s the reluctantly brilliant lawyer with an inquisitive instinct.
This last aspect of Michael’s personality is what entangles him in Arthur’s breakdown.
But here’s the catch: Arthur hasn’t actually gone crazy.
Rather, he has experienced a moment of clarity in the middle of his years-long defense of a dirty agricultural company, U North. He discovers the extent of U North’s corruption and decides to unofficially switch sides to instead protect the plaintiffs of the case, farmers who have had both their livelihoods and lives destroyed by the company’s poisonous weedkiller.
The problem is that Arthur decides to express his newfound disgust for his U North clients in increasingly loony ways, hence the rambling monologues to Michael and a culminating episode in which he strips down to only his socks in a deposition.
Enter Michael, whom the firm dispatches to smooth over relations with the alarmed U North and to babysit Arthur. But Arthur, determined to shed light on the truth, disappears and it’s up to Michael to track down his old mentor and contain what appears to be his lunacy.
But when Arthur continues to elude Michael’s grasp, U North decides to take matters into its own hands. U North’s chief legal counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), coldly orchestrates a master plan to “take care” of (read: murder) Arthur to ultimately shut him up.
While Clooney’s face is the one gracing the movie posters, Swinton, who played the White Witch in the first “Narnia” film frighteningly well, proves a worthy foil with her detached, calculating conniving.
Yet despite coming across as a polished virago in public, Swinton’s performance of Karen is intriguingly nuanced. Despite her crisp diction and even more crisply pressed attire, Karen is plagued by her own insecurities and nerves.
Gilroy artfully reveals Karen’s vulnerability by juxtaposing her professional composure with scenes of her rehearsing her talking points each morning as she gets dressed.
Of course, as Michael uncovers more of the truth behind Arthur’s babbling, Clooney quietly, skillfully acts out the evolution of his character. Largely on the sidelines of the main action of the film for the first hour or so, Clooney burrows his way into the thick of the plot, and the audience can’t help but feel more invested in his character’s search for answers.
Clooney manages to elicit sympathy from the audience for Michael, despite his tendency to toe the line between the difficult, right course of action or the cowardly easy way out. Along the way, we can’t help but root for Michael to throw off the chains of corporate law even though we’re not sure which way he’ll turn.
As a film, Michael Clayton doesn’t entertain; it rivets. Gilroy’s screenplay and dialogue make a viewer truly pay attention and think through the plot. Unfortunately, the intellectual nature of this film was also its downfall among the dismally bovine American box office, even with wide critical acclaim.
But if you’re not in the mood for mere mindless diversion, get in line for Michael Clayton.
Drama / English
By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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