When your life is coming apart, Michael Clayton is your man

MICHAEL CLAYTON, Tony Gilroy’s first film as writer/director, is just exquisite.

Like a Fabergé egg, MICHAEL CLAYTON – the first film as writer/director from the brilliant screenwriter Tony Gilroy – is intricate and endlessly fascinating. I’ve seen it a number of times now and like all really great movies do, it hits you with something different each time you watch it.

George Clooney is Michael Clayton

George Clooney is Michael

George Clooney plays the title role and he’s a ‘fixer’ (or as he calls himself a ‘janitor’) for a top law firm. Although he trained as a lawyer, somehow he got sidetracked when joining Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen and so for years if a client is in trouble, he’s the guy you call for help. Like Denis O’Hare‘s businessman, in the movie’s superbly tense opening 10 minutes – he’s committed a hit-and-run, left the scene and is now rattled and increasingly coming apart at the seams – so it’s Michael’s job to clean up his mess.

But that’s just the tip of Michael’s problems. He is also dealing with the failure of the restaurant he co-ran with his brother Timmy (who’s since disappeared and left him high and dry with a mammoth shortfall to make up to a loan shark) and most worryingly, his close friend and colleague Arthur Edens has just disgraced himself in a deposition with the massive class-action lawsuit the firm has been involved in for years, putting the entire case at risk. This leads the supposedly upright energy company on the other side in the suit – led by the formidable Karen Crowder – to get more than a little nervous when it thinks that Arthur may have discovered something irregular in their dealings and so perhaps Karen needs to make this problem go away.

Michael may have a lifeline through all this though, from his very smart young son Henry, who now lives with his ex-wife and her new husband and who Michael parents on a part-time basis – or is it the other way around? Henry’s fascination with a fantasy book called ‘Realm and Conquest’ could prove a very unexpected aid to his dad – if only he’d read it. See what I mean about detailed. Plus, there’s a nice contrast between the blue-collar world where Michael has come from, with his older brother Gene, a cop, looking out for him, and the corporate world where he lives day to day and doesn’t seem quite at ease in anymore.

Tilda Swinton is Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton

Tilda Swinton is Karen Crowder

You can’t talk about this movie though without mentioning the acting. With a cast of rich characters, from Tilda Swinton‘s conflicted (and Oscar-winning) Karen to Tom Wilkinson’s newly conscious-driven Arthur and Sydney Pollack’s straight-talking boss Marty, you revel in a collection of beautiful portrayals. But the film has performances of that calibre right across the cast of characters – Denis O’Hare (who I’ve mentioned); Merritt Wever, usually so wacky in Nurse Jackie but here all calm belief as Anna, Arthur’s potential smoking gun in the lawsuit and Austin Williams as Michael’s son Henry, who literally saves his life.

And it’s all headed up by the main man himself – the smart and seemingly in control but really all at sea MICHAEL CLAYTON. The Descendants was recently touted as George Clooney’s finest performance – no, this is it. In his black work suit, white shirt and black tie that almost seems like it has become a straitjacket for him, he shows us a man navigating a life in which his job is increasingly meaningless to him, his gambling habit is rearing its head again and his personal life is non-existent, except it’s now about making a future for his son. Clooney is great at comedy – particularly when he works with the Coen brothers – but I like him dramatic roles such as this and what Gilroy has directed him to do so successfully here, is to hone everything down and give us an amazingly minimal and truthful performance, it’s fantastic.

Gilroy has also written some smart scripts, including the excellent State of Play and Matt Damon’s terrific Bourne movies. He’s shown us how to fashion a gripping thriller but here he displays he’s got the skill to put the emphasis on gripping drama, whilst combining that with well-paced direction. This feels like most first films that you hear about – a story that the person really wanted to tell and Gilroy tells it very, very well.

The movie is beautifully shot in a cold, winter hue by the superb cinematographer Robert Elswit and is one of the best examples of using the prologue to set up the action and then going back in time (in this case four days earlier) to fill you in what’s taken place, before coming back to that crucial point and taking you forward to the end. And what an end it is. I can’t say more because it would spoil it but what I will say is that when you’re next craving a cleverly plotted, exquisitely told story with superbly drawn characters and pitch-perfect performances, you need to look no further than MICHAEL CLAYTON.