Sunday, March 13, 2011

Flick of The Day: Michael Clayton

Today's film is an old-school thriller of the highest order, Michael Clayton. It is often noted that for all his prowess as a movie star and his undoubted charm as an actor, very few of his films though critically lauded make any money, most barely breaking even. It is a shame then that some of his best work such as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Good Night and Good Luck and Michael Clayton has been the least successful. For all these films deserve to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
George Clooney is excellent as the titular lawyer and firm fixer with a gambling problem and a failed restaurant who spends his days and nights fixing all the little problems that would otherwise the firm and its clients. He is called in to help when one of the firm's leading litigators has a nervous breakdown in a deposition in relation to a case involving a killer pesticide. Tom Wilkinson is brilliantly manic as the depressive pushed over the edge by the thought that he has spent years defending this carcinogen. Tilda Swinton also shines as an in house legal counsel for the chemical firm, desperate for the case to be resolved in their favour and willing to go to any lengths to ensure this. It quickly becomes apparent that Wilkinson has evidence that the firm knowingly let this chemical loose and the films becomes a chase, with plot building on plot as Swinton's character seeks to ensure that the evidence never sees the lights of day.
The film feels like a paranoia thriller from the late '70s with its grandstanding performances, dialogue heavy scenes and plotting building up to a grand finale that is a thrilling and satisfying end to what has come before. Wilkinson is extraordinary as Arthur Edens, recalling the performance of Peter Finch in Network, and indeed like that fine performance he gets most of the best lines and monologues.

"Michael, I have great affection for you and you live a very rich and interesting life, but you're a bag man not an attorney. If your intention was to have me committed you should have kept me in Wisconsin where the arrest report, the videotape, eyewitness reports of my inappropriate behaviour would have had jurisdictional relevance. I have no criminal record in the state of New York, and the single determining criterion for involuntary commitment is danger. Is the defendant a danger to himself or to others. You think you got the horses for that? Well good luck and God bless, but I'll tell you this: the last place you want to see me is in court."

Praise must also go to the late, great, Sydney Pollack, always underrated as an actor, who gives a strong performance as the head of the firm, giving the film an added gravitas in the few scenes he shares with Clooney.
Tony Gilroy shows himself to be a fine director with this debut, never underestimating the audiences intelligence and ability to follow what is going on around them. His direction shows a lightness of touch, particularly in relation to the shocking murder that is at the centre of the film. Nothing is layered too heavily or signalled too strongly, he trusts the audience to know that this is wrong and all the more shocking for the matter of fact way in which it is portrayed on screen.
In summary, this is a great film with some fine performances and a great script from Tony Gilroy. Tilda Swinton was well worth her Bafta win as a woman who quickly gets in over her head and who's ruthlessness leads to her downfall. Clooney, Wilkinson and Pollack, all deserve praise. In the end, what is most enjoyable is that the bad guys get their due, and what is more old school then that?

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