“I am Shiva, the god of death.”
Michael Clayton is immediately recognizable as a film made by a writer. It is a perfectly crafted narrative, with all the beats and reversals happening in the right places. Each character is endowed with a panoply of quirks and relationships which we learn at a pace that seems almost scientifically measured and applied. It is a formulaic thriller in every sense of the word, and it is all the better for it.
Tony Gilroy, the film’s first-time director, slipped into his new role at the top with ease. Having spent nearly his whole professional career as a scribbler, he seems to have approached the onus of his new role with two fistfuls of both trepidation and confidence. By surrounding himself with some of the most talented people working in Hollywood today, he managed to create a film that proves to be highly original, wonderfully familiar, and downright entertaining.
First on that list of monumental talent is George Clooney, who commands the screen for nearly every frame. Mr. Clooney is something of a phenomenon, on and off camera. He is at once everyman and superman. He is Cary Grant and he is Gene Hackman; Charlton Heston and Spencer Tracy; Humphrey Bogart and Sean Connery; and he is none of those men at all. There is something hidden behind those dreamy eyes and that consistent smirk; there is a beast lurking within that body which can slip into any disheveled suit and look like a million bucks. There is no other actor who could become the title role of this film, and we are all the luckier to see him effortlessly bring to fruition such a complex man.
Complementing Clooney’s impeccable presence is the photography of master cinematographer Robert Elswit. No stranger to having Clooney’s “Section Eight” umbrella foot his bill, Elswit is also getting very good at photographing the actor. This is their third outing in two years, following Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck., both from 2005. The camera gets pushed around by our leading man, keeping us focused on his presence, allowing us to see deeper into his hidden side. One could probably count all the colors of this film on two hands. While the look is intended to make the film feel as if it’s from another era, that effect gets lost, thankfully, and something completely modern is born out of that initial impulse. It’s not washed out or grainy or anything that would make it frontally “old”. It’s just plain, literally, beautiful.
There is also a wonderful supportiqng cast, including Tilda Swinton, who brought her A game to a role that is hardly on screen all that much, but whose presence seeps into every frame without her. Tom Wilkinson ramps up the volume in a role that almost no one could play without making an ass of themselves except for him. For a few brief moments, Sydney Pollack shines his magic across the screen, maintaining his ability to be reviled and beloved whenever he opens his mouth; the voice of dirty and despicable logic. I don’t have time to go into the achievements in other categories, such as costume, production design, music, or sound, but I assure you, slam dunks all around.
Each character, and there are a surprising amount we actually follow, wins us over and disgusts us throughout the course of the film. It’s hard to avoid lawyer jokes in reflecting on this film, but when so many main characters carry the suffix esquire, it’s pretty easy to hate them off the bat. The hero is a man who cleans up messes with high profile clients. When we meet him, he is whisked away from gambling to go and throw some water on a client who hit a man with his Jaguar. Is it possible to love a man who will go to great lengths to prevent punishment from a hit and run? Part of Mr. Clooney’s incredible talent kicks in during these types of moments. Even when morality hits rock bottom around him, he always manages to hold the high ground. You root for him, you want him to get the cops off of this guy’s back.
The film does have, despite my oodles of praise I’m throwing on it, a fair share of weak moments. Particularly, there are at least three conversations in the film that are completely boring. The content is nice, but it’s unfortunately standard fare shot, counter-shot. Over the shoulder and back again, cutting to the face of the talking character (no one ever listens). The filmmakers stretched themselves so far to reach a level of cinematic grandeur, at their best evoking some moments of Bertolucci’s The Conformist, that they were bound to keep it simple (read: telveision) every now and again.
Regardless, Mr. Gilroy is a talent to be reckoned with. If this film is any sign of things to come, then we shall be seeing many good films coming from him. What will he be like without the immense talent surrounding him on this project? We may have to wait a good while before we find out, as his next project will star Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, a duo that may once again melt audience faces they’re so steamy. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Gilroy’s career is rocked by a little golden friend come March, but I won’t say for which department.
This is a film about becoming human. It is about diving into the bely of the beast and pulling yourself out of the much. The trick is that we spend most of the film reconsidering what it is to be a human. Who gets to be a person? Who is a good person? This drives the thriller.
I am very excited to see the growth of actress Merritt Weaver, who plays the small but important role of a, get ready for this, could-be-whistle-blower/small-town-farm-girl/legal-love-interest. She’s the catalyst for the whole unraveling plot. Having seen her as an extra on every “Law & Order” incarnation and more recently as the intern-turned-assistant on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, it’s nice to see her branching out, albeit for the same role.
Could Tony Gilroy and Gore Verbinski be good friends? I think they should be if they aren’t already. They have similar influences, though they are taking different paths. He won’t, but I’d love to see Gilroy helm a major genre pic a la Pirates of the Caribbean.
I hope that Gilroy sets the gold standard for writer-cum-director. By this I mean I hope all Paul Haggis wannabes fall into a bottomless pit. Wouldn’t the world be better if Haggis stopped making movies? How the hell does he have an oscar?