New-Release Tuesday: Michael Clayton

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

“You’ve got all these cops thinking you’re a lawyer. And you got all these lawyers thinking you’re some kind of cop. You’ve got everybody fooled, don’t you? You know exactly what you are.”

“I’m not the guy that you kill. I’m the guy that you buy. Are you so blind that you don’t even see what I am?”

“You’re late.”

“I’m not the enemy.”

“Then what are you?”

A colleague who had not yet seen Michael Clayton asked me the other day what kind of movie takes its title from the name of a fictional character. It just so happened that the trailer for Michael Clayton was about to roll. The above lines, culled from several different exchanges of the film’s dialogue, were just a sample of those that are included in the trailer.

Question answered: Michael Clayton is a film about identity, about getting past the convenient and misleading labels we wear called “names.” It’s directed and written, not coincidentally, by the man who also brought us the scripts for the Bourne films, amongst many others. “Identity is the kindling of all drama,” says Tony Gilroy; and if that’s true, you can get no more dramatic than Michael Clayton, which is rooted in the notion that people are incomprehensible—and yet oh, so predictable.

The title character is a legal fixer for a law firm whose clients’ tabs run in the tens of millions of dollars. As played by George Clooney, Clayton is a man who brings control to situations that have run out of it—and yet his own personal life is in shambles. He’s got a gambling problem; his restaurant business has failed; he owes money to the kind of people you don’t want to owe money to; he’s divorced; and he’s so overextended that his “quality time” with his son includes car trips around the city chasing down clues.

To make matters much worse, one of the horses he’s backed inside the firm—a top-flight attorney heading up the defense team for agricultural products client U-north—has decided to go off his meds and melt down… during a deposition of one of the case’s key witnesses. And Clayton has been called in to clean up Arthur Eden’s mess.

The defense’s case has been seriously compromised; U-north’s top executive, Karen Crowder, knows there’s dirt just waiting to be uncovered, and she’s disinclined to wait around for that to happen; and when Clayton has his back turned, Eden takes flight. Why? What’s he planning to do? Or better yet: What’s Crowder going to do to protect U-north? And what will Clayton’s firm do to protect its own interests? These are circles in which you don’t want to travel.

And really: Just who is Michael Clayton? And how is he going to fix the unfixable?

To say much more about the plot would be both uninstructive and unhelpful. This is one of those intelligent, tightly-plotted films in which, really, not an awful lot happens. But everything that does happen takes place very deliberately, very intensely, and quite gravely. If you’re looking for comic relief, you’ll have to duck out to visit another auditorium of your local multiplex.

Very early on, though, you’ll know that, at the very least, you’re in for a visual treat—and something of a mystery. Clayton is driving quickly—almost too quickly, you know—down a two-lane highway in upstate New York. He’s just visited the home of a corporate client who has committed one of those Chappaquiddick type boo-boos, and Clayton is in no mood to coddle such people; in fact, he’s almost in too bad a mood about it. Then, out of nowhere, he sees something off to the side of the road that makes him stop in his tracks. He pulls over to the shoulder and walks off into an unfenced pasture, where three horses in harness—but no saddles—stand silhouetted against the early morning sky. As his car idles along the shoulder of the road, Clayton stands face to face with these horses, and you can see the questions in his eyes: Where did these horses come from? Who did they get away from? Why don’t they run away? Who are they waiting for? Do they think they’re free, or do they think they’re fenced in?

And you know you’re in for the kind of film that likes taking its time, and likes asking more questions than it’s prepared to answer. And you’re in for surprises.

If you think I’m making too much of these scene, or too much of the artform in general, consider my exchange with Gilroy during a roundtable interview:

GW: If I could ask a really idiotic question about details… The fact that the horses are in harness is significant, isn’t it?

TG: You know, for the last month, I have been presented with the most extraordinary, beautiful, worked-out—I’m not kidding you—the most remarkable spectrum of interpretations of that scene. That’s a new one. That’s a new element. I can’t believe all of the stuff that I’ve heard. Some of it is so beautiful and so powerful—I’m not getting in the way of any of it. I’m not saying a thing about this. It started in Italy. “What did you mean by this?” I’ve never worked on anything where one scene or one sequence seemed to have so many different possible, really cool interpretations. They’re all valid. The answer is yes. Yes, you’re right.

GW: Let me ask the question a different way, since I completely respect your response to that. The scene is indeed a really incredibly inspired visual sequence. And that’s why you’re getting those kinds of questions. What’s going through your mind as you’re constructing that kind of sequence, knowing as you’re going in that this is going to be a huge touchstone for the entire—

TG: It was the location that we sweated above all others; it was the part of the film that was the most impossible to shoot; it totally warped our entire production schedule. Robert Elswit and my brother and I videotaped and cut that sequence with cardboard cutouts of horses on that hill, and everything. We did that three times. We worked it all out, and a huge amount of attention went into that one sequence. It was a disproportionate amount of the production. It was all very considered.

About the only shortcoming I can find in the film is that I never got the sense that Clayton is much good at his job—despite the fact that everyone holds his work in highest regard. If that was sort of the point, I guess I missed it. If it wasn’t… well, then, Gilroy is simply guilty of a little Spielbergian sleight-of-hand.

In any event, Michael Clayton is one of the most intelligent and artful films you will run across. So depending on how well you know your own tastes, this may either be a can’t-miss-it cinematic experience, or a movie you’ll be sure to steer clear of.

Michael Clayton is included with your Amazon Prime subscription. You can also stream at YouTube for a small fee.

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