George Clooney's subtle, affecting performance is the chief reason to see this super-sincere social drama.
The muckraking social drama has a long, proud tradition in American movies, from “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” to “Norma Rae” to “Erin Brockovich.” The pleasures of movies like these are simple and straightforward: When we know we’re on the right side of the argument, it’s deliciously gratifying to see the bad guys get it.
That’s the essential appeal of Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton.” Although Gilroy isn’t new to filmmaking — he wrote or co-wrote the scripts for all three Bourne films, “The Bourne Identity,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and, most recently, “The Bourne Ultimatum” — this is his directorial debut, and it’s a confident, well-tailored piece of filmmaking. It’s also conscientious to the point of being wearying: The plot hinges on an evil pesticide company (it bears the beautifully sinister name “U/North”) whose executives have worked hard to hide the fact that their product is poisoning the farms where it’s being used, as well as, of course, the families living on those farms. Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, U/North’s powerful in-house counsel, who will protect her company (and her career) at all costs. Tom Wilkinson is Arthur Edens, a senior litigating partner at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, the fat-cat law firm that’s representing U/North in a jillion-dollar class-action lawsuit.
After years of trying to protect a company he knows is in the wrong, Arthur has begun to crack up: He starts babbling and removing his clothes during a crucial meeting with the client. Luckily, the firm has in its employ a calm, cool “fixer” — his name is Michael Clayton, and he’s played by George Clooney — to clean up just these sorts of messes. Michael is also Arthur’s friend, and it pains him to see the guy unraveling, although he’s shouldering his own share of personal troubles as well: He’s deep in debt after trying to bankroll his brother’s failed bar and restaurant; a sometime gambler, Michael has to fight the temptation of the tables when he needs to make quick dough; and even though we can see he’s an essentially principled guy, it’s beginning to dawn on him that the work he’s been doing for a living may be something he’s no longer able to live with.
Gilroy (who also wrote the script) shows a knack for certain kinds of dramatic flourishes. In one nicely staged scene, Michael, after a late-night meeting with one of the firm’s clients (this well-heeled joker has just left the scene of an accident), drives down the kind of perfectly groomed suburban-slash-country road that you see only in places where rich people live. He stops the car and gets out: He’s seen a group of horses standing on a ridge in the early-morning light, and he approaches them cautiously, with a sense of wonder and curiosity. They sniff and snuffle at him. Something is about to happen, but we don’t know what. The scene has the proper amount of suspenseful gravity; its sense of dread hangs in the air like mist. (Director of photography Robert Elswit’s camera practically captures it.)
But the picture is so honorable, so sincere, that it trundles along dutifully and rather dully. Most of the supporting performances are of the sort that get heavily praised for everything we can see the actors doing; the performers don’t always pull off the far subtler achievement of building a character layer by layer. Swinton gives a meticulous performance that’s all about meticulousness: Her Karen Crowder is the sort of slick, determined woman who strides into a life-or-death meeting looking as cool as a cuke, even though sweat is gushing from her armpits. (Though in this case, we get to see the sweat.) The performance is fine at first, but by the time we see Karen laying out her pantyhose on a hotel bed the night before a big meeting, smoothing them as if they were a sort of ceremonial garment, the ritualistic quality of her gestures has become a bit much. The same goes for Wilkinson, a good actor who gets stuck with the role of the normally staid professional who goes crackers after failing his moral obligation. It’s not a terrible performance; it’s just the sort of holy loony role (“I am Shiva, the god of death!”) that no actor can survive.
The chief reason to see “Michael Clayton” — aside from the exhilaration of the climactic payoff — is Clooney’s performance. Clooney is cast as the movie’s conscience, and it’s much harder for an actor to play a noble quality than a character. But Clooney pulls off the performance beautifully, perhaps partly because he’s so casual about it. He doesn’t come at the role as a matter of life-and-death import, which is what makes it so affecting and why it cuts so deep. As a performer, Clooney is a great listener first and foremost; he understands that the reaction must always come second. And so even though Clooney has plenty of lines in “Michael Clayton,” the performance is built on the way his character takes in, and processes, information: We can see it all play out on his face, in the way he arches an eyebrow or betrays just a ghost of a frown.
Clooney has a face made for chiaroscuro, and Elswit and Gilroy seem to know it: He’s often lit in high-contrast extremes of shadow and light, a visual metaphor for Michael’s increasing discomfort with the equivocating and truth-mangling his job demands of him. This is one of the great performances of the year, an unflashy turn that comes to mean even more after the movie is over, a performance that makes you think about what you’ve just seen rather than instantly banish it. In a movie climate where big-studio releases churn ever more quickly through the theaters, the vitality of certain performers, like Clooney, becomes more important than ever. He may be the star of “Michael Clayton,” but his performance is all about undercurrents. Instead of taking control of the movie in any overt way, he commands our attention by swimming just beneath its surface. He’s a disappearing act with staying power.
More Related Stories
- J.J. Abrams reveals deleted shower scene with Benedict Cumberbatch
- Is the anti-gay backlash on?
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
- The camp-free "Behind the Candelabra"
- Justin Bieber will destroy you if you live-tweet his parties
- Marc Maron on Twitter feud with Michael Ian Black: "We have an understanding"
- "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis to jury: "You should be euthanized"
- Ai Weiwei releases heavy metal music video
- Actually, Beyoncé is a feminist
- Marc Maron and Michael Ian Black's epic Twitter battle
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
- Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal
- Burt Bacharach opens up on daughter's suicide
- Steven Spielberg to produce "Halo" television series
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11