Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Michael Clayton Review -- test upload

On Saturday the Phnom Penh Film Club will view the smash-success directorial debut from career scriptwriter Tony Gilroy, *Michael Clayton* (2009), starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack and Tilda Swinton. 

As described in the DVD commentary, Tony Gilroy's pitch for this masterpiece was as spartan as it was resonant with a young turk's confidence. "I want to tell a back-of-the-house story about a high-end law firm," he told the powers-that-be. "There will be no courtroom scenes, it will have a star part, and someone will die." 

That's it. That's all he told them.

...Probably if you or I had pitched that movie -- especially that way -- it would have enjoyed the kind of chances usually reserved for snowballs in very hot places. But experiential firepower matters in Hollywood (indeed at least as much as who you know), and where experience is concerned Mr Gilroy wasn't shooting blanks. This may have been his directorial debut, but his teeth were cut on writing for some pretty amazing pictures in their own right, as lead screenwriter for all three of the original Bourne Identity movies, and as writer-producer of the relentless albeit flawed movie about South American kidnap extraction, "Proof of Life." With Michael Clayton, then, Gilroy doesn't so much announce his arrival as prove that he belonged in the class of the "arrived" from the very beginning. 

George Clooney plays the title role: the resident "fixer" can keep the top-flight clients from bolting to another firm, taking all their more reputable business dealings with them. ("Never underestimate a motivated stripper, Henry.") Tom Wilkinson plays the senior litigator of the firm, and dogged defender of a shady agribusiness conglomerate with deep pockets and conspicuously shallower convictions.

The film opens with the booming voice of Wilkinson's character Arthur Edens, speaking in what sounds like affectionate, you-won't-believe-what-just-happened tones to his long-time colleague Michael. As he monologs unseen, the camera reveals a series of cutaways touring an apparently empty and darkened law firm in the middle of the night (though, on re-watch, our eyes are perhaps drawn to the shot of a ten-line office phone, on which eight of the lines are in use and the other two are on hold). "Okay," we think to ourselves, if only momentarily, "I get it: he's leaving someone a voice-mail." Except the longer Edens speaks, the more obvious it becomes that something is terribly amiss. ("...I realized I had been coated in this patina of shit for the best part of my life. The stench of it and the stain of it would in all likelihood take the rest of my life to undo. And you know what I did? I took a deep cleansing breath and I set that notion aside; I tabled it; I said to myself as clear as this may be, as potent a feeling as this is, as true a thing as I believe that I have witnessed today, it must wait....")

Edens, it transpires, suffers from a manic depression so enthralling that he occasionally misses its effects badly enough to skip his pills. After ten years of the agribusiness defense being all the life he has, Edens needs just the sort of holiday he knows he'll get by leaving the lids on his medicine bottles for a while -- prompting him eventually to strip naked in front of one of the plaintiffs at her own deposition. And when this happens, who else can the firm trust to rein-in their star attorney and soothe the rattled client, than their own in-house fixer Michael Clayton? And will Michael, confronted with a choice far more dramatic than any of the principals could ever have anticipated, do the right thing *or* the good thing, and for that matter will he even get the chance before his own shady dealings get the best of him? 

Executive producer Steven Soderbergh affixes his creative thumb-print all over this one, a film that might in a pinch be described as "Traffic Takes Manhattan," with all the same one-beat-out-of-rhythm unease, the same flaws in the characters' logic (and in their character), and the same sense that, if people don't get busy recognizing themselves for who they are pretty doggone soon, they're really going to regret it. Through the combination of Soderbergh and Clooney's executive oversight, with Gilroy's perfect-pitch on the subject of how to pace a suspense picture--stringing it tighter and tighter without snapping its plausibility in his hands--the film emerges as a best-of-three-worlds collaboration: at once uneasy and irresolute like Soderbergh, instantly sympathetic in that special way peculiar to Clooney, and absolutely gripping from the opening monolog all the way up to -- and through -- the end-titles, the device for which is at once the most simple and straightforward, and perhaps the most difficult to pull-off, of any I've yet seen.

On the insistence of Pollack and Soderbergh, Gilroy was given final-cut on this picture (something even he himself is on-record knowing well enough not to expect ever again), and his choices in the editing process reveal a sense of self, and a sense of medium, that even most of the great names in directing needed a lifetime to inhabit with such deft and underplayed aplomb. James Newton Howard's soundtrack outdoes even the best of his previous work, with haunting swells and fades juxtaposed against just enough low-rumble percussion to keep us planted squarely on the hook (the opening monolog is periodically stung with the muffled sound of someone striking the lowest half-dozen strings on a piano, through the opening between the lid and the case, instead of using the keys), and the set decorations are chosen with the kind of maestro care with which we can immerse ourselves totally into the competing worlds of a big and bustling midtown law firm, or a dingy basement poker match, without once feeling tugged around. In a particularly interesting wrinkle that also works -- flawlessly -- one of the very first scenes in the picture, and certainly the most tense and suspenseful in the first reel, is also one of the last scenes in the picture, meaning that at the end of the film we spend a thrilling car-ride sitting next to George Clooney, worried for him and all that he stands for in the movie, despite knowing exactly what's about to happen.

Literally all of the actors hit their marks impeccably -- thanks in no small measure to Casting Director Ellen Chenoweth: conservative and true-to-type where that will suit the movie (David Lansbury as Michael's alcoholic and no-account brother Timmy), but bold in precisely the right doses as to leave us, in the audience, feeling that extra undercurrent of tension that comes with a fine acting talent playing just a bit outside themselves. Most notable in this respect is the choice of Tilda Swinton, the always virtuoso actress (Vanilla Sky, Adaptation) who must somehow figure out how to play the in-house counsel for the client company, and do it in such a way as to come across equally cold-blooded and obviously in over her head ... and who of course pulls it off with skin-crawling deadpan.

I hope everyone will plan to join us Saturday for a film as cinematic as it is ambitious, as delicate as it is unstoppable. A film whose every character is sympathetic without always being likable, rendered with a maestro's flair for brushstrokes that are always beautiful while hardly ever being pretty. Few titles we've shared so far should be considered as universally can't-miss, and few are anything like as sure-fire bets to entertain.  

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