Thrills and chills
Michael Clayton starts out like an art film, works its way to conventional
The title character in Michael Clayton, played by George Clooney, is a “fixer” for a high-powered corporate law firm. He’s hard-boiled, quick-witted, ruthlessly pragmatic and a little bit withdrawn. He’s also something of a fallen star in the legal profession—an aging, anxious and somewhat tattered hot-shot who’s beset with marriage troubles, bad investments and a gambling habit.
Clayton is at the center of our attention here, but screenwriter and first-time director Tony Gilroy also makes him a somewhat ambivalent figure, a take-charge type made desperate by events spiraling out of his control. The fixer begins to doubt the fix.
Part of the deal in this oblique legal thriller is that there are a couple of other people whose stories have crucial impact on Michael and the plot. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkerson), Clayton’s mentor and esteemed colleague, has a bizarre emotional breakdown during a deposition in a big-bucks class-action suit, and Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), Clayton’s counterpart in the corporation that Arthur is ostensibly defending, emerges as an enigmatic and increasingly dangerous player in the corporation’s efforts to do some extra-legal—and lethal—fixing of its own.
Initially, with its fragmented time scheme and bizarre juxtapositions, this production has the aura of a rather somber and paradoxical art film. Gilroy maintains that somber, detached tone throughout, but the storyline steadies itself into conventional clarifications and resolutions in the second half.
Gilroy’s methods add a certain fascination to the film, but they also prove annoying and worse, as he has used them to jigger up a sort of pseudo-suspense by arbitrarily delaying basic bits of narrative information.
That air of paradox and ambiguity may seem appropriate in a film that touches on an overwhelming range of urgent topical issues—industrial espionage, corporate thuggery and greed, large-scale cover-ups, paranoid conspiracies, lost ideals and crises of conscience. But the story’s too-conventionally satisfying resolution leaves all that looking like window dressing of a very dubious sort.