Eugene Weekly : Movies : 10.25.07


Dirty Jobs
To a “fixer,” everything looks broken

MICHAEL CLAYTON: Written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Cinematography, Robert Elswit. Music, James Newton Howard. Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack. Warner Bros., 2007. R. 119 minutes.

Tom Wilkinson and George Clooney in Michael Clayton

Though his output implies a wide range of abilities, George Clooney has mastered a particular character type, one I’d describe as a handsome scoundrel who is also a crusader/reformer. (Possible, or rather partial, exceptions are Good Night and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the two films Clooney directed.) The degree to which Clooney’s crusaders can succeed is directly related to the amount of mischief they’ve been making: Think of Everett, the ex-con in O Brother Where Art Thou?, who pontificates impressively on all manner of subjects but cannot, even in the film’s closing moments, convince his estranged wife to forgive him. I don’t fault Clooney for working the same patch of ground — in fact, I give him credit for his durable persona — but the persona only works in the presence of vulnerability. Danny Ocean, from the Ocean’s movies, is invincible and therefore uninteresting; Jack Foley, from Out of Sight, can’t even get his car to start, which is why Jack Foley is Clooney’s best role to date.

That Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a sleepy-eyed mess is one of the unexpected pleasures of Michael Clayton. Michael has the dirty job (they don’t call him “janitor” for nothing) of keeping the clients his law firm defends out of trouble. In essence, he’s a high-priced chaperone who transitions into “fixer” mode when laws and jaws get broken. As Michael’s personal life unravels due to debts from past mistakes, Alfred (Tom Wilkinson), a senior partner at Clayton’s firm, goes berserk during a deposition and disappears. Complicating matters is Alfred’s friendship with Michael. But of greater consequence is Alfred’s insistence that the firm’s largest client — a pesticide company — is knowingly killing people. Is Alfred crazy or morally enlightened? It’s not Michael’s job to find out, but if he delivers Alfred to Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the wicked head lawyer for the chemical company, she might have Alfred “fixed” for good.

The problem at the core of Michael Clayton — that there exists a higher authority than professional obligation, but sometimes we must stoop before standing straight enough to see it — is fundamentally more interesting than, say, the ridiculous conceit of The Brave One, in which good people do terrible things without consequence. Writer and director Tony Gilroy, who wrote the fine Bourne series, adds a convincing fall from grace to Michael’s past, a stumble that handicaps him to this day. Gilroy, in his directorial debut, smartly avoids digging too deeply into the pesticide case — this could easily have been a film about tobacco, or anything that’s harmful when applied in high doses — but his real achievement is in coaxing career-defining performances from Clooney and Wilkinson. Clooney looks haggard throughout Michael Clayton, and his performance strikes a fine balance between exhaustion and determination. But it’s Wilkinson who steals the show here: He hasn’t been this good since In the Bedroom, largely because he’s usually confined to the smaller roles reserved for “character actors.” Wilkinson deserves more, but let’s start with another Best Supporting Actor nomination, which surely he deserves for Michael Clayton. Sydney Pollack is his usual pillar of resolve — does anyone play compromised authority figures better? — but Tilda Swinton, unfortunately, is miscast here. Her feline features, tiny and delicate, aren’t right for lead counsel Karen, who emerges as a nasty villain of sorts. Otherwise, this credible and intelligent thriller needs little in the way of fixing.