(the review contains spoilers)
“There is no witness so terrible, no accuser so powerful as conscience which dwells within us.”
„Michael Clayton” is one of the most important movies of 2007, nominated for Academy Award, among others, for best picture of the year and included on top ten lists of many critics. It is also one of my favorite movies, intense thriller telling the story of the „fixer” in law firm, former district attorney who has to deal with a crisis when his friend Arthur, brilliant lawyer who handles the case of 3 billion dollars class action lawsuit against massive copany as its defense lawyer has a nervous breakdown. The intrigue involves ambitious lawyer working for their company Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) and its boss Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack).
The characters are perfectly constructed – we know seemingly little about them, but it's enough to have impression of how their lives must look. Clayton has a young son, who he doesn't get to see often, nor does he has time to have real discussion with him, he is divorced. He has drug addicted brother because of whom he lost business and faces bankruptcy. Worse of all – he is addicted to gambling and has just got back on his feet again. He is alone, grim, frustrated. But he is good at his job and it seems to be everything in his life – not that it would make him happy.
Clooney's performance is truly the best one in his career. He was excellent in „Up in the Air”, „Burn After Reading” and „Solaris” but his work here is exceptional. He seems perfect – elegant suits, great manners, always there for his company, but underneath there's rage, same rage expressed by Arthur. Emptiness, wasted life. Frustration for living every day as a fixer, doing something he really doesn't want to do, but has to because by some miracle he is good at it. With private life in pieces, with nothing to look forward to. That's why after he wins in the end he still looks defeated in this cab. And that's why it's so remarkable and full of hope that even a man who is destroyed, who has no reason to go on, can stand up and do the right thing. When you think of how lawyers are portrayed in the cinema you probably think of Richard Gere in “Primal Fear” or Keanu Reeves in “Devil's Advocate” - cynical, successful, poised, content. And here is a lawyer who not only has financial problems, who is not only not surrounded by beautiful women, but who also, with every day, falls more and more into emptiness and nothingness of his existence. He is far from being hot-shot lawyer cinema always presents – he is almost invisible and what's even more interesting – his job requires him to be like that. He is a “janitor”, he cleans up other people messes. He is the first one on the line – dealing with frustrated clients and employees. The juiciest part of lawyer's job omits him – he finds the best possible people to the job he really wants to do himself (the scene where he tells Mart he wants to go back to court).
The key scene where Michael decides what to do – whether to just move on or whether to make attempt to change his life is when he notices horses peacefully standing by the side of the road. He saw the picture of the exact same situation in the book his son left in his apartment. In his collected, routine life that event is so extraordinary it forces him to get out of the car, which saves his life. And that only proves to Michael that there is something more and all that matters in the end is the loyalty to yourself not to the company you work for, doing what you think is right.
Swinton is excellent as shaken Karen, who is not doing what she is doing because she is a bad person – she simply wants to survive. But it's too much responsibility, too heavy burden to bear. Karen's position in her firm is taking its toll on her – she is a wreck, shaking, trembling, compulsively preparing her speeches, planning her every word, every move. Her job is incredibly stressful and she makes it even worse when she decides to use every means necessary in order for her firm to win the case.. Her best scene was her breakdown in the bathroom after she sends people to get rid of Clayton – somehow the viewer instinctively knows she is not nervous because she is responsible for the death of another human being – she is shaking with fear of getting caught. Her lifestyle, her daily pursuit of success stripped her of any morality – the judgment of killing someone is not based on what lies in her conscience, it is the sum of pros and cons. And it's not herself who is evil, it's her entourage which demands her to be ruthless – she doesn't really have a choice other than to succumb to it's requirements. . Tilda is one of the best actresses out there nowadays, incredibly brave and capable of portraying anything.
Arthur, played by Tom Wilkinson, is brilliant and even at the time of very diminished clarity of mind he can win argument with Michael. On one day his life, his devotion to the job hits him with the reality of it, just like that. And given that he has history of nervous breakdowns it hits even harder. His wife died, his daughter abandoned him. And his job was all he had – but what good can come of it? Thousands of hours, days, months, lives spent on working, more often than not defending the wrong side. Wilkinson's part is not as big as Clooney's or Swinton but it's definitely memorable. There is no doubt about the fact that Arthur is a genius, but the fact whether or not he is insane is debatable. He precises his goals with clarity and he is capable of defending himself at any time. Altogether the movie contains 3 outstanding performances and that's a rare quantity of good acting even in numerous films, let alone one.
The whole story is incredibly difficult to follow – it's not because the script is bad, on contrary – it is excellent. Everyone seems to has his own agenda, seemingly having none at all - Clayton just wants to have whole thing resolved, Marty wants to have the situation under control. Karen tries to end the crisis without anyone knowing what she did and Arthur just wants the company to lose. The story begins with explosion, in the popular manner of distorted chronology of storytelling. Maybe some of you find it to be a cliche, but there is a reason for why it's so often used – it works. Every season of 24 begins with shocking twist and huge crisis, most of action movies and thrillers start with something shocking and unexpected. And in this movie it works particularly well because it sets the tone for entire film – at first glance peaceful moments, deep down filled with high tension.
The character development is important – we have a lot of scenes not related to the main intrigue – Michael visiting his family, playing cards in Chinatown, Karen breaking down in the morning – it's all there to make us see that there is no easy solution to this whole thing. All those people, all of us – merely pawns in the grander scale of things. Each with appointed task, each bound to it – those who break free are sentenced to die, sentenced for banishment., called insane or incapable. Those who stay collapse and ruin their lives living in constant tension.
And that tension is what makes the movie so unique – I believe the last time my adrenaline level was so high was when I was watching „The Bourne Ultimatum” (incidentally, Tony Gilroy whose „Michael Clayton” was a directorial debut was the producer of Bourne series). Thanks to great directing and James Newton Howard's Academy nominated score for the movie the viewer is literally shaking. Certain scenes like the reprise of Michael's drive to the hill and the near ending scene of Michael yelling at Karen are incredible.
That very scene would be, for me, the reason enough to award not only Tilda with Oscar, but also Clooney. It is one of the most amazing, nerve-wrecking scenes I've seen – the dialogue and the force with which its being delivered, the high stakes game between the characters and the madness and that frustration, kept away from the world escaping from Clayton's eyes are just amazing. And then the very peaceful climax of the movie, where camera focuses on Clooney's face and with Howard's sublime “25 dollars worth” playing in the background - for once Clayton is doing something without any sense, without any goal - “just drive”. Fantastic.
The film is intense,, thrilling and stunningly looking – I love thrillers with cinematography like that, cold colors, characters thrown into vast world, in hostile interiors filled with people who don't really matter. The tone of the movie is rather subtle, with underlying sadness and with only a tiny ray of hope. This is not the movie that will leave you cheerful and upbeat, but definitely the one which will leave you with that wonderful feeling of just having seen a truly outstanding film.