Best Picture Profile: Michael Clayton

Directed by: Tony Gilroy

Company: Castle Rock Entertainment / Warner Bros. Pictures

Runtime: 119 minutes

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The film is about the titular character who is a fixer of a law firm. One night, his car exploded, realizing that someone wanted to kill him.

Jumping back four days earlier, Michael finds out that one of the firm’s lawyers, Arthur Edens, gets into an outrageous emotional outburst in a deposition involving U-North, a company involved in agricultural products. He was able to get Edens with him, but he escapes.

Karen Crowder, a high-ranking officer in the company, discovers Arthur’s documents containing the details of a pesticide that they produce which turn out to cause cancer. Learning that Arthur has a mental disorder, she hires two men to kill him and make it appear that he had taken suicide.

Michael is now left with no other choice but to find out who did that to Arthur, and he sees links with the U-North personnel. In the process, men start to tail him, in Karen’s order. After a poker game that night, he drives away from the two men, not knowing that they have planted a bomb in his car. As he stops beside a hill with horses, his car explodes.

Seeing it for the first time, I was overwhelmed. Seeing for the second time, I was still overwhelmed, but I already understood it.

The first thing that pops into my mind with this film is the screenplay. It talks about a very complicated subject because it is set in the corporate world. The words used could ave been too simplistic, or too professional, but it refuses to go either way. Instead, it walks into a very fine line between it for us moviegoers to understand what’s going on but at the same time, we know we are not just in our daily lives; we are in the corporate world.

The screenplay flourishes right from the start of the movie.  In a bombastic voice-over monologue brilliantly delivered by Tom Wilkinson (more about him later), the tone is already set right in those minutes. We are in a corporate world where people talk professionally, but it doesn’t neglect the fact that they are not just professionals. They are people, and the human emotions are completely there. It powerfully blends emotions and intelligence right from the start. It already brings us into a fixed direction of the tension, and on the way, it never gets monotonous.

Its genius never stops throughout the film. It follows some conventions of a legal thriller, but it manages to reinvent them into something fresh. Sure, there are points where I was asking to myself “is it going this way, like the conventional one?” and it almost gets you there, until it pulls back to give something new.

It’s actually a very dangerous thing to do because it really looks like it is a commercialized film, not that there is anything bad about it. But we know what’s going on with the film industry right now. Independent productions rule over commercial or mainstream films, and just the term mainstream already connotes something of lesser quality, especially if other movies in the mainstream are either brainless action films, unromantic or schmaltzy romance-dramas, cheap and uninspired horror films, or just stupefying so-called comedies. But movies like Michael Clayton actually give the words commercial and mainstream better image. And I can say it – Michael Clayton is a commercial film. Nothing bad about it, just saying that it is. Okay, enough of that.

The thing is the screenplay has sophistication and intelligence that sets it apart from other mainstream films of its genre. Moving along…

The direction works so well with the screenplay that it, in its entirety, creates a thrilling ride. Going to the direction, it has a lot of energy in it. But it also knows when to go subtle and when to give us the thrilling part and it is very balanced and not turning it to inconsistency. Yes, that’s the word – well-balanced. I could say that the job of the screenplay was bigger in this movie, but the contribution of the direction is no lesser. It stresses out the filmmaking techniques used, but doesn’t overdirect it. Precious did that, but not this (okay, what’s the comparison about, anyway?) Again, I think it is more of a showcase of the screenplay, but the direction definitely has an impressive control and hold in the proceedings, giving the film the right pace.

I can say that the cinematography is not as beautiful as Atonement or as mysterious as No Country for Old Men, but the cinematography of this movie does a lot for this movie. Right from the first shot, it effectively sets the corporate world with something mysterious going on. It comes of with a neo-noirish feel that is so effective in illustrating the movie itself – there are a lot of hidden things in it. Guess what? Even that close up in the wheels of a cabinet-thing is so haunting.

The editing makes the movie more powerful. It constantly raises the intrigue in the scenes. It knows when to give us the quick shots to risen the action, while it also knows when to give us one long Steadicam shot to evoke tension. It never goes overboard and never tries to make the whole editing showy. It does some very complicated job with some scenes but it remains subtle throughout the film.

The costume and production design are not necessarily worthy of any awards or something, but at least they deserve notice for adding actually a lot on the film.

Other things don’t matter now because this, aside from being a writer’s movie and a director’s movie, is an actor’s movie.

George Clooney is on the top of his game as the titular character. Like his beautiful work in Up in the Air, his performance here is not very showy. There are a couple or three of scenes that stand out, but the whole work is very impressive. Mostly, what he needs to do is to embody the character very well for us to actually believe the character’s motivations that push the movie forward. For the whole length of the movie, he does a really great job not just in playing the character, but in being able to define it from his other performances.

Most of Clooney’s detractors say that he always gives the same performance in his movies. Well, I’ve never seen Clooney bring such strength in his work. In Up in the Air, he played vulnerability. Here, he played strength. I guess the similarity comes from the fact that both performances showed restraint.

Going back to his performance, three scenes stand out. First is his climb to the hill, seeing the horses. It was played twice. The first time, the scene focused on the explosion itself. When we saw it again, we are now invested with the reaction of Clooney. He played it with shock but at the same time, it’s like he actually knew it. Of course, we know he didn’t know it, but his reaction was not a full shock. It’s as if it didn’t scare him. It even made him stronger. But what’s noticeable in that scene is his sudden change of reaction. When he saw the horses, it’s like he’s pitying them, unsure of what will happen to the horses. In just a snap, his expression changes when the car exploded. It’s in a snap, but the change was gradual. I don’t know how to say it, but was such a powerful moment in the film.

The second one was his confrontation with Tilda Swinton’s character (more about Tilda later) about her bribing him. It’s where he actually gets angry with a character in the film.  Most of the time, he remains cool. A thing may agitate him, but he keeps it cool. That scene stunned me. When he finally said to her “Do I look like I’m negotiating?”, that is so great. That is what you call the perfect Oscar clip – not in the sense that its only purpose was for him to have an Oscar clip, but it represents the entirety of the performance, which is indeed powerful, while it still is a part of the character’s logical actions.

But if I’m going to pick his Oscar clip, that would be the final shot of the movie – he sitting at the backseat of the car as his cab drives. It’s the only moment where we see Michael in peace. It’s a breathtaking shot masterfully acted by Clooney. There are a lot of emotions taking over him, but he clearly shows us the transition happening in him with just his eyes. It was like, at first, he was in peace, but he starts to tear up, possibly having doubts and regrets. Someone who hasn’t seen the film yet might be confused by what I am saying, but I think it is a powerful way to end the film. That shot on his face just lasts even if the screen is already in black. Definitely an engrossing performance.

Tom Wilkinson and Sydney Pollack adds a lot of integrity and brilliance in their roles. For Wilkinson’s part, it could have been an annoying one-note caricature filled with hysterical antics, but he was able to give a very haunting, and at the same time, natural performance. His voice-over at the start of the film is one of the best voice-overs ever. As in ever. On the other hand, Pollack has less to do, but his outcome is still in the caliber of the great cast. His brief performance looks like more of a showcase of the screenplay, but he handles it very well indeed.

That leads us to Tilda Swinton in an absolutely remarkable performance. Right from her first scene, she establishes a doubtful aura. Maybe it’s her likable presence that makes her antagonist hard to define. What do I mean by hard to define? We like Tilda (or as we should say, as someone said, Saint Tilda) very much even if she kidnaps a child or gets into an extramarital affair with her son, friend. And she also has a deglam of sorts here, so it makes her more likable. But as the film progresses, the film slowly peels off her sympathetic exterior to show us how evil this woman is. Her American accent is very convincing, technically-wise. Her first scenes, including an uncomfortable scene in a cubicle and an intercutting scene while she is practicing her speech, already establish the character’s discreet but violent nature.

Her best scene, her confrontation with Clooney, perfectly draws her character. It is a criminal undergoing a torture of wits with Clooney. We see here how she gets trapped by the situation, and her stunned reaction, together with that weakening of the knees, are all in perfect harmony. What I can only criticize on her character, not her, is that it looked too easy. We know Tilda’s acting range (and we know there’s more!) and with a character of Karen Crowder, no matter how complex her character is, still feels too easy for her because we know she can do better than that. Don’t get me wrong – Karen Crowder the  character is hard to nail. And Swinton gets it so greatly. But we are just stuck in wanting more from her. Anyway, I can’t deny how powerful her presence was.

This movie brings its fully realized material into life and creates a very suspenseful, yet meaningful ride. The lead character was not just used as a device to forward the story; he himself has a story to tell. And this is not an action story, this is a story about morality and how it affects people. This could have been ordinary, but the movie turned out to be something special.

For this, the movie gets:

4

What are your thoughts, dear reader?

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3 thoughts on “Best Picture Profile: Michael Clayton

  1. I’ve seen it just once, when it was released, but I remember liking it. Clooney was GREAT, Tilda was also very good – but I think I would’ve liked Amy Ryan or Cate Blachett for the win.

    it’s good stuff.

    Like

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