You simply must watch it twice to completely savour and revel in its brilliance. It’s impossible to believe this is Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut until you find out he’s the same chap who wrote screenplays for The Devil’s Advocate and the Bourne trilogy.
The most awesome thing — and also the most dangerous thing — about a writer-director is he’s not going to throw away those elaborate lines he’s written all that easily.
Tony’s touch lies in making it all fit into the storytelling, with a fair bit of indulgence of course, right from the opening sequence.
I begin with the writing because that’s what you notice even before they show you the guys the film is about. Tony isn’t interested in telling you the story. He is excited about letting you discover it.
The blatant indirectness of the narrative, the unabashed verbosity of writing, combined with understated performances (the end credit sequence even beats the subtlety of Will Smith’s final ‘Happyness’) and sublime editing (Tony employing his brother John at the desk) make Michael Clayton a film for the discerning movie buff.
There’s an opening voiceover conversation between Michael (Clooney) and his colleague (Wilkinson) that sets the tone for the film. One with the revelation of an epiphany manifested through insane profundity. Then, there’s a string of things that happen one night establishing the basics (the who, the what, the where and the when of the story) and suddenly Boom — an explosion, all within the first five minutes of the film. The rest of the 110 minutes, of course, is about the why-it-happened and the how-it-resolves.
But don’t let that put you off. Though it seems complex, Michael Clayton is essentially the simple good versus evil tale. Only that here the good, the bad and the crazy all seem to do basically the same thing: take their respective sides in a law-suit.
There’s a rich corporate under the scanner, a meticulous law firm protecting its interest, a senior fixer who has just had a moment of epiphany and his broke buddy torn between his friendship and loyalty to the firm. They are all in the business of fixing things and cleaning up the mess with alarmingly clinical precision, until they’ve all met their match.
So yes, it is a talking-talking movie with very few scenes of action used effectively and briefly for maximum impact. Hence, most of the storytelling rests on the director and his bunch of actors.
The casting is a masterstroke. Clooney walks away with one of his finest underplayed characters ever, deserving every bit of the Oscar nomination. Spontaneous, charming, suave, smooth, intelligent, troubled… his face says it all.
Tom Wilkinson is indescribably mind-blowing with his flawless delivery as a troubled, tormented soul of corporate machinery. Too bad he missed out on the statuette despite the consolatory Academy nomination.
Tilda Swinton probably has all of 15 minutes of screen-time scattered through the film. And the fact that she won an Oscar speaks volumes for her performance. And, Sydney Pollack and… Okay, you get the picture.
Very rarely, maybe once or twice a year, we get a film with half a dozen Oscar nominations playing in town. A film that actually challenges your thinking. Don’t even think. Just go for it.
Michael Clayton Genre: Thriller
Director: Tony Gilroy
Cast: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
Storyline: A lawyer designated to clean up the mess for his firm’s high-profile clients finds himself in a moral dilemma.
Bottomline: Good versus evil, sublimely understated