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The man behind the scripts for the Bourne trilogy (and The Cutting Edge) has decided to step into the director’s chair for his new film Michael Clayton. Along with an A-list producing crew (Sydney Pollack, Steven Soderbergh, Anthony Minghella) Tony Gilroy has assembled a brilliant cast of big names and familiar faces. After the action-packed Matt Damon-starrers he decided to go more psychological in the thriller category. It would be tough for a first-time director to choreograph extended fight sequences, and credit him for leaving that to the professionals. This film relies on the acting and tight story of internal espionage between a multi-billion dollar corporation and the law firm that defends it. While containing many elements keeping it in the mainstream—numerous coincidences are necessary for the film to work—even when you know something is going to happen, Gilroy keeps the pace edge of your seat, allowing even the obvious to have a successful payoff.

In a nutshell, the story tells of a law firm’s top defense attorney growing a conscience. After six years of his life defending a client that most likely did knowingly kill 500 people with pesticide, he stops taking his medication and decides to cleanse himself of the filth he feels covers his body. This breakdown comes at a crucial moment in the case as evidence has turned up proving the U-North company had knowledge of the destructive qualities of their work. Because of this, we are introduced to the “fixers” of both sides, becoming involved to set things right. Both Tilda Swinton and George Clooney are fantastic in their roles as Karen Crowder of U-North and Michael Clayton of Kenner Bach Law respectively. They each need to start uncovering what went wrong and think of ways to rectify the situation. Although they are essentially on the same side, neither feels the need to let the other know what they are doing to clean up the mess.

At the crux of the tale is the question of how far one is willing to go before morality has to eventually set in. The mental breakdown of the lead attorney—Tom Wilkinson at his finest, turning on a dime from crazed to professional at one point in a phenomenal confrontation with Clooney in an alley—proves that a man who spends his entire adult life helping keep murderers out of jail can one day find the light. Seeing one of the victim’s suffering, along with the evidence that could blow the case wide open, finally brings him to the cusp of flipping sides. As for Michael Clayton, Clooney is on retainer to fix problems, something he has done for Wilkinson’s character in the past. He never quite knows the whole story because he doesn’t need to; his job is to keep his old friend under control. However, Swinton’s General Counsel has no second thoughts on what side of the law she is on. Able to squash any second thoughts or conscience that appears to be fighting its way to the surface, she does whatever is necessary to gain control over the case again. The question then becomes, will her vicious tactics eventually awaken the sleeping giant inside Clooney, or will he remain oblivious to the real problem and just take his money to pay off a brother’s debt and go home to his son?

Although we are given moments of contrivance, a phone call to Clooney as he leaves a poker game; a field of horses that looks like a picture in his son’s favorite book, which coincidentally is a main point in Wilkinson’s evolution post-meltdown; the arrival of the case’s main victims in NY at just the right moment, Gilroy still manages to make it all work. The pacing is perfect, in my opinion, and thus keeps you anticipating the next move, helping to allow one to see past the easy bridges of the plot. From the getgo you will probably have an idea in your head for how it all will play out, yet the journey still delivers with high tension. A lot is going on in Clayton’s life, events that would make a lesser man buckle, but this janitor has the gumption to stick through to the end in order to set things right for his brothers, his old friend, the case’s innocent victims, and himself. Whether you accept all that happens or not, the film is a ride worth taking. If for nothing but the final confrontation between Clooney and Swinton, a powerhouse sequence that both deliver the goods on, the movie is one to checking out.

Michael Clayton 8/10

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photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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